Ti­bet's thangkas find new fans across China

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

HER eyes riv­eted to the can­vas, Wu­lan metic­u­lously ap­plies colour to an im­age of the Bud­dha, us­ing pig­ments made of crushed pearls, turquoise and agate. The 34-year-old is one of dozens of stu­dents at a school in Lhasa learn­ing the me­dieval Ti­betan art of thangka – minutely de­tailed paint­ings de­pict­ing Bud­dhist deities or sym­bols, usu­ally on cot­ton can­vas or silk scrolls.

But she is not Ti­betan. Eth­ni­cally Mon­gol, she moved 2500 kilo­me­tres (1600 miles) to em­bark on seven years of studies.

Bei­jing’s forces took over Ti­bet in 1951 and the com­mu­nist govern­ment re­viles the ex­iled spir­i­tual leader the Dalai Lama, but the re­gion’s tra­di­tional religious art is now in­creas­ingly be­ing em­braced by out­siders – in­clud­ing from China’s Han eth­nic ma­jor­ity – as both buy­ers and pro­duc­ers.

“Thangkas are cap­ti­vat­ing a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple,” said Wu­lan. “Tra­di­tional cul­tures are more and more recog­nised in China, which wasn’t al­ways the case in the past, dur­ing the eco­nomic boom.”

In their hey­day cen­turies ago thangkas had pa­trons and prac­ti­tion­ers in Nepal, Bhutan, Ti­bet and north­ern In­dia. In 2009, UNESCO added them to its list of the in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage of hu­man­ity, call­ing them “an in­te­gral part of the artis­tic life of peo­ple” on the Ti­betan plateau.

Now there are more than 100 ap­pren­tices – in­clud­ing some Han Chi­nese, the coun­try’s over­whelm­ing eth­nic ma­jor­ity – at Wu­lan’s Danba Rao­dan school, who get free tu­ition in re­turn for help­ing their teach­ers with their paint­ings. The stu­dents spend 10 hours ev­ery day learn­ing how to trace fig­ures in pen­cil, wield del­i­cate paint­brushes and ap­ply pig­ment to can­vas.

The re­vival comes af­ter a turbulent past – the Dalai Lama fled Ti­bet in 1959 af­ter a failed up­ris­ing against Chi­nese rule and the rav­ages of Mao’s Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion laid waste religious tra­di­tion and iconog­ra­phy as zeal­ous Red Guards, in­clud­ing Ti­betans, sought to de­stroy the “Four Olds”: cus­toms, cul­ture, habits and ideas.

“Be­yond the de­struc­tion of art­works and monas­ter­ies ran­sacked, looted or burned, a lot of the ex­per­tise was lost. Many teach­ers dis­ap­peared or were in prison and could not train young peo­ple,” said Amy Heller, a Ti­betol­o­gist and art his­to­rian based in Switzer­land.

“Even af­ter the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, it was dif­fi­cult. The cen­sor­ship had been such for 10 years that peo­ple were re­luc­tant to bring out their thangkas, for fear of be­ing de­nounced.”

Many Ti­betans ac­cuse Bei­jing of want­ing to di­lute their cul­ture and the Dalai Lama says Ti­bet is the vic­tim of “cul­tural geno­cide”.

Bei­jing con­sid­ers the Hi­malayan re­gion an in­te­gral part of its ter­ri­tory – a view dis­puted by the Ti­betan govern­ment in ex­ile and some schol­ars – and re­torts that it ended serf­dom and brought de­vel­op­ment. The is­sue can find its way into art. In 2014, Chi­nese ty­coon Liu Yiqian paid a record US$45 mil­lion for a 15th-cen­tury thangka tapestry be­lieved to have been a gift from a Chi­nese em­peror to a Ti­betan Bud­dhist leader.

At the time, Liu said; “If you look at it from the per­spec­tive of politics and diplo­macy in an­cient China it is ... of great im­por­tance, be­cause 600 years ago Ti­bet was a part of China al­ready.”

Once only made by ar­ti­sans at­tached to Bud­dhist tem­ples and monas­ter­ies and painstak­ingly pro­duced ac­cord­ing to strict rules, the cre­ation of thangkas is now open to any­one pas­sion­ate about the art.

The vast ma­jor­ity of the Danba Rao­dan stu­dents are still Ti­betans, but when it opened its doors in 1980 there were only 20 thangka painters in Lhasa, said its di­rec­tor Ten­zin Phuntsok, who in­her­ited it from his fa­ther.

“To­day there are 1000. And na­tion­ally, about 10,000,” he said.

Each paint­ing re­quires be­tween one month to three years of work, de­pend­ing on its size and com­plex­ity.

And while thangkas were tra­di­tion­ally of­fered to monas­ter­ies or sold to Ti­betan fam­i­lies, the art has now se­cured a new, lu­cra­tive au­di­ence – Chi­nese col­lec­tors.

“They come from the big cities of Bei­jing and Shang­hai, and are be­com­ing more nu­mer­ous,” said Ten­zin Phuntsok.

As in­ter­est grows, prices have soared, ris­ing 10 per­cent a year ac­cord­ing to the spe­cial­ist Tiantangwu gallery in Bei­jing.

“The thangka of a novice teacher is al­ready worth sev­eral thou­sand eu­ros,” added the di­rec­tor, whose own works sell for nearly 200,000 yuan ($30,000).

The older gen­er­a­tion of painters “do not nec­es­sar­ily wel­come this com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion”, ac­knowl­edged the 31-year-old, but said; “As a young per­son I find it in­evitable. The main thing is to find a bal­ance be­tween the tra­di­tion and the mar­ket.” Some spe­cial­ists warn of wider risks. Af­ter decades of fran­tic eco­nomic growth and ma­te­ri­al­ism, “Chi­nese sense a need to fill a spir­i­tual hole with re­li­gion,” said Wang Jingyi, pro­fes­sor of art at Tai­wan Nor­mal Univer­sity in Taipei and mar­ket an­a­lyst.

“And they are drawn to Ti­betan Bud­dhism, which has more colour­ful art than what you find else­where in China.” But Chi­nese col­lec­tors’ “frenzy” for thangkas was “not nec­es­sar­ily ben­e­fi­cial for re­la­tions be­tween Han and Ti­betans”, he added, as Han-owned gal­leries some­times reaped huge prof­its from the works of Ti­betan painters.

“Ul­ti­mately, these are religious items,” he said. “If they are too com­mer­cialised, they will lose their religious identity.” -

Photos: AFP

The re­gion’s tra­di­tional religious art is now in­creas­ingly be­ing em­braced by out­siders.

A stu­dent puts the fin­ish­ing touches on a thangka.

Thangkas have be­gun to “cap­ti­vate a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple”.

Stu­dents paint thangkas at the Danba Rao­dan art school in Lhasa.

Thangkas are known for their in­tri­cate line work.

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