It’s all in the details: Nepali Thangka paintings have vivid colours representing Buddhist symbols and images, capturing the cosmic world of Gods and Goddesses. Thangka paintings reflect a deeper meaning and philosophy, and flourished as murals in Buddhist monasteries many centuries ago and were later rendered on cloth and handmade paper as well.
Known for Tibetan and Modern Thangka paintings, artist Hira Bahadur Lama has been creating this art form for three decades now, but he still feels that he has a lot to learn. “Art is a never-ending learning process, I am still learning new styles and techniques every day,” he says. He extensively replicates age old Thangka paintings: Green Tara, White Tara, Manjshree, Yama, Mahakala, Yamantaka, Guru Padmasambhava, Shakyamuni Buddha, Medicine Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, Amitaayus, Chyangresi, and Lokeshwor.
In the initial years of his career, he worked for others. After he gained confidence and experience, he opened his own company Shakyamuni Thangka Udhyog which is a Thangka art teaching institution as well as Thangka wholesaler based in Gokarna.
Before the Covid 19 pandemic, 16 artists worked in his company. In a telephone interview with WOW’s Pabita Dahal, he spoke about his art, technique and more. Excerpts:
How has Thangka painting evolved over the years?
Interestingly Thangka (Tibetan word for painting) art was influenced by Chinese Buddhist monks who came to Nepal to visit sacred sites. This resulted in a unique style of painting by the Newari artists of the Kathmandu Valley. In Nepal, Thangka is known as Paubha, and the Newari artists specialised in traditional religious paintings used in worship. Paubha (Sanskrit word for painting) therefore depicts deities, mandalas or monuments. Most of the artists are from Lalitpur and the legacy dates back to the 4th Century as is documented by Chinese Buddhist monks. But unfortunately, those art works have been destroyed.
It’s only from 11th century that Thangka paintings survived. Temple festivals have always fascinated Thangka artists. For them, religion, both Hinduism and Buddhism, has been the central theme, along which they also weave in the flora and fauna of their landscape. The earliest Nepali painting on cloth dates back to late 11th century.
Actually, the market was even better before I started this business when Europeans used to purchase the paintings directly in Euros. Now, the export business of Thangka painting is not that good in the European market. China has taken over the market and has made it highly competitive. We need to adapt as per the market trends as it is our bread and butter. Prices are now decreasing and the quality of the paintings are also being compromised.
What made you choose this art form?
Lama cultural function require Thangka paintings. I knew about this art form from my childhood and my uncle used to practice it as well.
I was fascinated by it. After SLC, I came to Kathmandu to learn it. It was just a hobby then, but it turned to my profession. I never felt the requirement of changing my profession. It just happened and I could not pull myself away from the beauty and creativity that this art form demands. Now it has been 30 years.
What is the process of replicating renowned Thangka paintings?
There are numerous Thangka paintings I have replicated so far. Green Tara, White Tara, Manjushree, Yama, Mahakala, Yamantaka, Guru Padmasambhava, Shakyamuni Buddha, Medicine Buddha, Amitabha Buddha, Amitayus, Chyangresi, Lokeshwor are to name a few.
Yet another unique aspect of this art is that it is drawn on cotton fabric using mineral colours. The fabric is coated with a mixture of mud and other consistencies. It is further rubbed with stone to make the fabric smooth and is then employed to paint images. The special feature of Thangka Painting is that we cannot sketch as we like. We must replicate the drawing exactly as per iconographic grids symbolism. The drawing of the figures as well as the composition must be under strict guidelines of Buddhism. However, we can show our creativity in use of colours and touch up.
The final touch is done with metal dust. According to the demand, we use gold dust, silver dust, or supplementary to the gold.
It takes 20 days to a year to complete one Thangka painting as per the quality and size and the price also differs according to the quality. I have sold from Rs. 12,000 to Rs. 300,000.
What are the challenges faced by a Thangka artist?
Thangka painting has historical, cultural and spiritual significance. We make sketches of Gods every day. The fascination towards every art increases as you practice more. I enjoy the whole process of making a painting. We discover new qualities in every art and that final result of every painting encourages us to do more.
The process of making Thangka painting really needs lots of hard work and time. We have to work sitting in the same place for a minimum of 12- 15 hours a day. And since we cannot make the sketch as per will, we have to be immensely careful in every inch, every step which is really challenging.
How are artists thriving in this art? What kind of paintings do customers demand the most?
The business of Thangka painting was very good before the devastating earthquake of 2015. Then it went down gradually as the number of tourists coming to Nepal decreased. However, the artists were able to make a living out of it even then. The current pandemic has affected every business and the lives of the artists the most. Tibetan art is more in demand in comparison to modern art.
What are you currently working on?
As I mentioned earlier, China is the main destination for Thangka paintings. The business came to an almost full stop when the Corona virus pandemic hit there. My centre has been closed for five months and artists are jobless. Personally, I am working on a few orders. If the lockdown remains for a longer time, I am sure some of us may need to change our profession.
What do think about the new generation Thangka artists?
There are very few artists who have studied Thangka painting theoretically and practiced it too. Either they have sole theoretical knowledge or they are only practical artists. Having both knowledge and skills can take an artist far in this field.