Religious art transcends borders

Thangka paintings by Chudri and Tashi Gyatso

Thangka paintings by Chudri and Tashi Gyatso

Thangka paintings by Chudri and Tashi Gyatso

Chudri working on a Thangka painting

Chudri working on a Thangka painting

Religious art transcends borders

Once sacred, Thangka paintings invade the secularized market

Although a favorite for collectors today, Thangka remains an obscure art beyond the Tibetan regions, not palpable to people outside the industry.

An effort is made at the Grand Hotel Beijing, where more than 30 pieces of Thangka paintings selected by two artists are exhibited.

Chudri and Tashi Gyatso, two brothers from Qinghai Province, learned the technique of Thangka painting, a type of religious painting mounted on satin and colorful fabric and hung for worship, 30 years ago. They opened a studio with over 200 students enrolled.

Xue Ping, director of the exhibition sponsor Chenlon Chosen Art Gallery, said he hopes more people will discover and protect Thangka. He plans to exhibit the art in Italy, France and the UK, to show the development of Thangka in China.

Over the past decade Thangka has taken off quickly, but in the meantime the traditional religious aspects of the art are secularizing.

buddhist art

Unique painting style in Tibetan culture, Thangka is popular among tourists. Once used primarily for religious purposes, the Thangka is increasingly accepted by the general public.

The paintings, which have a history of over 1,300 years, relate primarily to Tibetan Buddhism while reflecting Tibetan history, politics, culture and social life. Thangka is nicknamed “the encyclopedia of Tibet”. It is also called “mobile niche for Buddha”, because it replaces the copper or wooden figures of Buddha.

Several main schools gradually took shape in its development, such as Miantang, Miansa, Qinze and Jiugang schools.

In 2006, Thangka was among the first group classified as intangible cultural heritage under national protection, for its inestimable religious and cultural value. Thangka has only been found in Tibet, Qinghai Province, Gansu Province, and areas where Tibetan Buddhism reigns.

Its influence has since spread. There are more and more production centers in Thangka, and parts prices are skyrocketing. Art is also protected by the efforts of the state.

“More and more people love and pay attention to this art form,” said Ma Shengde, an expert in the protection of intangible cultural heritage. “The ecological environment for the development of Thangka is forming.

Classical Principles

The creation of Thangka requires extreme patience and precision. The process is complicated, and painters must adhere to classical principles of Tibetan Buddhism, on which Thangka is based, as well as painting techniques. Pigments are made from natural mineral materials to prevent the color from fading.

It can take months, or even years, to complete a Thankga painting, depending on its size, from several to hundreds of square inches. The price ranges from several hundred to several million yuan.

The paintings can only be drawn by hand, although painters rarely sign the paintings, a practice of Buddhism showing piety for Buddha.

To train painters in this art was a big problem. In the past, Thangka art was only passed down through families, excluding women. The situation has changed.

Norbu Sidar, an artist of Thangka paintings in Lhasa, Tibet, told the Global Times that Thangka paintings are now mainly passed down through family heritage and social formation.

He learned the principles of Thangka from his grandfather at the age of 12 and painted for almost 30 years.

Five generations of his family dedicate themselves to the traditional paintings of the Miansa school in Thangka. He opened a painting training center in Thangka in 2010 and enrolled students, including people with disabilities and orphans, free of charge.

“There are few schools training talent in this regard,” said Norbu Sidar, adding that the training centers in the company are driven by market demand.

“There are vocational schools and several universities that offer education in this area,” said Ma Shengde. “Interested students go to Tibet and Qinghai to learn it for themselves.

It was once said that a painter needed 10 years to learn Thangka. This delay has decreased, driven by a strong demand for art. But it also means that some painters do not strictly follow Buddhist principles, which are at the heart of Thangka paintings.

Growing demand is also giving rise to printed Thangka for sale to tourists.

“Thangkas in various forms satisfy different consumer demands, as long as they don’t mix the fake with the real,” said Pema Dorje, a tour guide in Lhasa who runs a traditional Tibetan art shop.

But Ma Shengde believes that such behavior should be prohibited.

“Thangka is known for its craftsmanship and the strict requirements of painters. Machines will damage this.”

Cautious innovation

Innovations in Thangka are underway in various aspects. Lhaug Dakpo, a Thangka artist, gradually combined modern painting techniques and changed the composition of images, landscapes and perspective in his work, after his Thangka did not sell well.

He plans to produce a new kind of canvas that can be hooked up to large inkjet printers, as CNTV reports, and computers will make it more standard. Lhaug Dakpo wants to create a company specializing in the production of canvas for Thangka paints.

Penpa, vice president of the Lhasa Artists Association and painter of Thangka, incorporates new elements into his subversive designs, chinanews.com reported.

In one painting, a figure of Buddha transforms into a Tibetan girl surrounded by musical instruments. Penpa hopes to add planes, trains and tourists to his future painting, to reflect the development of traffic in Tibet.

For him, traditional Thangka paintings are distinctly Buddhist and linked to the faith. Modernization will limit the development and dissemination of Thangka. He insists on the importance of preserving traditional painting techniques.

Thangka paintings are often aimed at tourists, with alterations to the background and designs, with only the Buddha figures remaining. Ma Shengde said it might hinder Thangka.

“Innovation must be careful and respectful. The heart of Thangka lies in its religious aspects. It is not intended for mass consumption and must not meet the demands of the public,” he said. “Our descendants should know what the original Thangka looks like.”