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The Curious case of Thangka art

The meditative Buddhist paintings are very popular in the West. But the art is dying out among its traditional practitioners. Their children no longer want to learn it, writes Shalini Singh.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2009 01:58 IST
Shalini Singh

In remote Kyuling village deep in the Spiti Valley lives a family of five that’s hunting for a key. It’s the key to an old trunk that contains an heirloom — several rare Thangka paintings which had been kept locked up in the trunk for decades and which the family wanted to show to a visitor who wished to photograph them. The family looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. Villagers suggested they break open the lock, but they refused saying it might be inauspicious to do so. “The key will be found when it’s meant to,” they told their guest — mountaineer, photographer, author Kishore Thukral (47).

Thukral is a regular at the Spiti Valley. It was in 2001, while he was researching his book on the legends and folktales of the region (published in 2006) that he stumbled upon some old Thangkas. “I was staying with my local guide, Norbu, in Demul village. I visited the chokhang (small temple, a feature of many households here) in his house and saw the Thangkas there. It’s then that I realised they really needed looking after,” Thukral says.

The inhabitants of Spiti are generally guarded about their temples, he goes on. “They know that the value of the Thangkas goes beyond money, so they don’t like exposing them.”

With reason. For Buddhists, especially Tibetans, Thangkas are sacred paintings, depicting the Buddha, Boddhisatva and a host of peaceful and wrathful deities, and the myths surrounding them. Thangka art originated in Nepal and India a thousand years ago, it is said, and both continue to be important centres for the art form. Thangka art took root in Dharamshala and the Himachal valley, promoted by the Tibetan disapora that settled here.

It’s an esoteric art, and Thangka painters have to train for 10 years before they can claim to have learnt it, and another 20 years to become a master. They must mediate on the deity they wish to portray before putting brush to paper, and unlike artists in the secular sphere, never sign their name. It has other peculiarities, says Sarika Singh, 32, who together with her husband and master painter, Lobsang Choegyal, runs the Thangde Gatsal Studio near Dharmshala which trains painters in the long-drawn olden traditions as well as offers a short, month long course to foreigners (fee: Rs 1 lakh) wishing to learn it.

“The paints used are mostly stone pigments and vegetable dyes in the five colours of Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism: white, green, red, yellow and blue. It also uses a lot of pure gold and silver,” says Singh.

But the most established school for Thangka is the Norbulingka Institute in Sidhpur near Dharamshala, instituted by the Tibetan council in exile as a move to preserve traditional Tibetan arts and culture. “It’s the best,” says Singh, an alumna herself. “It had a number of master teachers from Lhasa.”

Today, Thangka art faces a curious dichotomy. On the one hand is Thangka’s growing popularity in the West — the result of the revival of Buddhism in recent times. Singh reports teaching two foreign students for a month in a year, and six resident students in all. “We’ve had student groups from the Denver University in Colorado in the last few years. There is a growing interest in Thangka art,” she says.

On the other hand, the traditional practitioners are losing interest. “There are only a handful of painters left in the Spiti region and their children aren’t keen to continue the tradition,” says Thukral. “With the Tibetans in exile, this art nearly died. When I started in the mid-90s, there was not one woman in my class in Dharamshala. There are only 3-4 schools left today and in the next ten years we might see a complete wipe-out,” adds Singh. N. Sikander, spokesperson for, a handicrafts website that acts as a mediator between buyers and sellers, too feels that despite Thangkas’ popularity, demand is still low. “There are hardly any artists left today.”

Which makes what Thukral is doing, so invaluable. For the past few years, Thukral has been scouring the Spiti Valley, persuading families in remote villages to show him the Thangkas in their chokhangs. There was resistance at first and so, says Thukral, “I spoke to Nono, the king of Spiti, about restoring them and that’s how the project began,” he says. Next, says Thukral, “I clicked the originals as they were — sooty and mouldy — and then touched them up on Photoshop,” keeping the “cracks and wrinkles” to give his prints a feel of authenticity.

Prints of these ‘reproductions’, mounted on scrolls, were recently exhibited at a show at The Attic gallery in the capital. The proceeds from the sales of these prints will be used to restore the originals, says Thukral, which is “a highly specialised and expensive job. Also three-fourths of the proceeds from the sale will go to the families.”

As for the family in Kyuling, which couldn’t find the key to their old trunk, Thukral says he went back last year, hoping they had found it. “But last year when I went, they were still hunting for it,” he smiles.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the Valley.