15 February, 2004

The School of Thangka

Sushma Joshi
The Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004

Through one of the many winding lanes leading off the main shrine of Boudha, Kathmandu, you can walk past craftsmen hammering delicate silver jewelry, past workshops which manufacture wooden casks, past a dump-heap where an old woman scavenges for recyclables, and into a large and spacious monastery. This is the Shechen Monastery, one of the many monasteries that dot the land around the main shrine. But Shechen, which is based on the Ningmapa tradition, has something a little different to offer.

This warm February morning, a scattered line of animated foreigners carrying scrolls in their hands exit out of the building. As we climb up the stairs, we see photographs of thangkas framed and exhibited on the walls. On the second floor, monks rush about carrying trays full of tarts adorned with fresh fruits while people carrying diplomas get their photographs taken. At the threshold, we meet Monk Matthew, a Tibetan Buddhist monk originally from France. Monk Matthew greets us warmly, and shows us around the room adorned with freshly painted, ornately brocaded thangkas. It’s the graduation day of the first class of the Tsering Art School of the Shechen Institute of Traditional Tibetan Art.

Charlotte Davis, a slim woman dressed in a Tibetan bokkhu outfit, is part of the graduating class of 13 students. Charlotte, who has a degree in Fine Arts from Australian National University, is from Sydney. "I was a Buddhist, and I wanted to practice art that would incorporate my spiritual practice," she says. Charlotte arrived in Nepal in 1998, when the Shechen monastery had just established a new building. "I didn't really know how it would go," she says with a smile. "But the teacher Konchog Lhadrepa is very warm and humble, and very hospitable. This place became my second home."

Charlotte, who volunteers as an administrator and has her fees waived, says the school is still very affordable even for foreign students - the tuition ranges from Rs. 1300 (Rs. 72=US $1) a month for day students to Rs. 3500 a month for boarding students. The locals pay Rs. 650 a month for tuition, and Rs. 2000 a month to board.

Pema Tsering, a charming young man with bleached hair and white clothes fit more for a pop star than a thangka master, says he was always interested in paintings. He spent a year learning from another teacher in Boudha before he found out about the school. Originally from Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Pema says: "My parents were very religious, so we would go to monasteries a lot. I used to take my pen and paper and draw what I saw. Foreigners liked what I drew. Eventually I found a sponsor." After a year in Boudha, Pema Tsering joined the thangka school, and has been there for six years.

He points out the thangka he did for his final examination out to me. The Buddha, made with gold paint, is elaborate and beautiful. "It usually takes students 45 days to finish a painting, but I had to go to Bodh Gaya with my parents, so I had to finish it in 30 days," he says with a mischievous smile.
Tenzing Oser took all of 45 days to finish his thangka. Originally from Khasa, Tenzing, who is dressed in the robes of a monk, says: "We're trying to revive the Karshoma tradition back." He explains to me that there are many styles of thangka paintings, and the Karma Gadri paintings derive from the Karshoma School. The paintings are in high demand - three of the graduating class have already been sent to Hongkong to execute a painting there.

The third floor is filled with old thangkas recovered from Shechen Monastery when the monks fled Tibet in 1959. A particularly striking one, rectangular and covering an entire wall, has details so minute and perfect it would require a microscope to see the details. Outside in the open-air balcony, students eat chocolate cake and fruit tarts as they meet the international guests who have come to attend the opening.

The school was started when Monk Mattew got together with a partner, who volunteered to teach thangka painting. The school feels like an institution with Western-style funding, not the resource-poor institutions of Nepal. Funded by the Dutch government and a private donor, the school has many international students, including those from Japan, France, Korea, Australia, US and Denmark. Many locals hail from Mugum, a remote part of Nepal. Besides Sherpas and Tamangs, there are also a number of Bhutanese monks at the school. "One of the monks here had a good relationship with the Bhutanese Queen," Charlotte explains. "That's why we have so many Bhutanese monks."

The students, Charlotte says, don't necessarily have to be artists, nor be talented. But they do have to be Buddhists in order to keep the art within the context of the practice.

Will Charlotte continue to practice when she returns to Australia?

"The art gives me the opportunity to combine my practice," she says. "Its very meditative. I was here for six years, but I feel like its just the beginning. I can deepen my practice a lot more. I will return to Australia and continue my painting there."

The Shenchen Institute is an example of how the unequal balance of intellectual exchange between the East and the West - now heavily skewed in favor of the West - might be rectified. Most young people from developing countries long to go to North America and Europe for their education, whether it is in the sciences, arts or humanities. Institutes of this nature, by offering an international and quality education grounded in traditional arts and indigenous knowledge, blaze a trail for new institutions to develop and flourish right here in Nepal.

NOTE: The "Monk Matthew" referred in this article is of course the famous Matthieu Ricard, author of "Happiness", whose fame I was quite oblivious of when I met him.  

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