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Thangka artist Sitar: protecting traditional Tibetan culture

  • Source : VTIBET.com Author : Tenzin Woebom Time : 11/16/2018 Editor : Tenzin Woebom

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    Sitar (L) and his co-partner Norbu Tsering (R) pose for a photo at their Karma Gadri Thangka Workshop in Chushur county of Lhasa. [Photo/VTIBET.com]


    Tibetan arts, especially thangka, a profound art of religious painting, are well protected and developed. Thangka painters have faithfully passed down the art from masters to apprentices in a heritage chain. Some painting institutes even offer thangka courses to students, and the tradition of learning teaching skills from masters is still tightly controlled today. 


    In order to carry forward the thangka art, Sitar, a young Tibetan thangka artist established a non-profit thangka workshop in Siji Jixiang (meaning auspicious four seasons) village of Lhasa's Chushur county and has dedicated his life to adding glory to the traditional art. As he says, "my mission is not just painting thangkas, but telling people Tibetan culture, philosophy and knowledge behind it." 



    Sitar draws a thangka very patiently. Thangka is a traditional Tibetan painting usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala. It is intended to serve as a guide for contemplative experience or praying. [Photo/VTIBET.com]


    According to Sitar, his workshop started with two painters at the very beginning, currently he has about ten students, all of whom are Tibetans from Tibet and Tibetan-inhabited areas in other parts of China. 


    "There are ten students in our workshop now and all of them receive one-on-one tutoring for free" said Sitar with a smile, adding, "our workshop plays a vigorous role in not only promoting the protection and development of Tibetan art culture but also helping the poor master skills and shake off poverty. I think in this context of rapid modernization and greater opening up to the outside world, combining cultural preservation with development is the best way to carry Tibet's outstanding traditional culture forward." 


    With a history of more than 1,300 years, thangka painting is an amalgamation of both art and faith. According to Sitar, delicate skills are required for this traditional art form. The composition of each piece is geometric, and all the elements and the various ritualistic implements are laid out on a systematic grid of angles and lines. 



    Norbu Tsering, the co-partner of Sitar, draws thangka at the workshop. The proportion of Buddha figures and the overall layout of the painting have to meet specific requirements, and the painter has to follow strict ritual procedures of Tibetan Buddhism in its creation. [Photo/VTIBET.com]


    "Generally, it will take a student five years or more to master the skill. And most importantly, painting a thangka needs lots of patience, time and effort. If some students are brilliant enough to grasp the techniques, they can graduate in advance. The curriculum is more flexible here compared to that of regular schools," said Sitar, adding that people could learn thangka painting in his workshop for free. "Since my teachers have never charged any tuition fee from me, my students also don't have to pay any money for learning thangka. Traditional education is very simple, as long as you are earnest to learn and interested in it, money is unnecessary." 


    Sitar was born in Jodha county of Chamdo, Tibet. At a very young age, he encountered with the Tibetan Buddhist thangka art by a chance. "Thangka is a very beautiful artwork, I decided to study thangka painting when I first saw it," said Sitar. The desire to understand the profound art of religious painting leads Sitar to practice and draw lots of paintings. As he can remember, he was always drawing. 


    By the age of seventeen, Sitar got a chance to study thangka painting with great thangka masters. "I knew it's a very good opportunity for me to realize my childhood dream, hence, I worked so intense that in 3 years I already mastered 5-year course and received a diploma of the traditional Buddhist painting in Karma Gadri style. I studied various techniques and continued to refine my thangka painting skills with several great masters." 


    Asked about his feelings about learning the art, he added, "it's definitely a tough work. I even tried to quit it several times before. Thanks to having good masters, their advises and encouragements lead me to keep on. I really appreciate what they've done for me. Now, the more I practice the art the profounder I found it is." 


    Although Sitar is a young painter in Karma Gadri style, his thangka works are quite famous in thangka artistic circles. It's said that many of Sitar's artworks were displayed in different kinds of exhibitions at home and abroad. Speaking of his honors, like most thangka painters, Sitar shows humble and sincere character. "I feel unqualified to say I am an excellent painter, really. I can only say I deeply love thangka, and I can say I will devote myself to thangka art for life." 



    Sitar prepares pigment for thangka painting. Making and using mineral and botanic pigments has over thousands of years of history in Tibet. These kinds of pigments can be preserved well for thousands of years without fading because of their durability. [Photo/VTIBET.com]


    When talking about the process of making a thangka, Sitar introduced that the creation of a thangka piece is like a journey of self-cultivation. First of all, a painter will commonly choose linen cloth or cotton fabric as painting material, he or she will then stitch the material's edges with flax thread and stretch it on a specially made wooden frame. Secondly, the painter will spread a paste made of animal glue mixed with talcum powder over its surface to block up the holes in it. When the paste is scraped off and the cloth gets thoroughly dried, the material is ready for painting. Thirdly, the artist works out the sketches of the images with charcoal sticks. The drawing usually begins with the figure in the centre and then goes to the surrounding deities or landscape. Colouring comes last. And after the painting is done, it is mounted on a brocaded silk border. 


    As Sitar introduced, thangka painting styles in art and iconography differ according to the various religious schools. The Karma Kagyu style of painting, known as Karma Gadri, was established in 1500, reflects influence from India in its form, China in its coloring and Tibet in its composition. 


    What's more, the pictorial subjects of thangkas include portraits of Buddhas, stories from the lives of saints and great masters. "Thangka paintings vary in size, ranging from a little over a few square centimeters to several square meters. A large thangka often takes large team of artists months, even years to make. The purpose of thangkas is to help to understand the basic aspects of the Buddhist doctrine and establish a link between the believer and the symbol of the deity depicted on it," said Sitar. 


    Thangka artwork is seen as an encyclopedia of Tibetan culture with its high artistic value and unique painting style. People can better understand Tibetan history and culture by viewing and enjoying it. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Sitar said, "thangka painting skill has to be inherited and passed down to future generations because it is an important part of the Tibetan culture." 


    Nowadays, there are more and more young thangka painters like Sitar conveying sacred knowledge of ancient Buddhist art to the modern world. No matter whom they learned from, or no matter how their qualifications are, they all hope the traditional thangka art can be developed and inherited well. They also hope more and more people can get to know Tibetan unique culture from thangka. 



    In a Thangka painting, not only the main character, but also every single detail was drawn vividly. [Photo/VTIBET.com]


    P.S. If you want to learn Karma Gadri school of thangka painting or buy excellent thangka artworks, you may add 13308907716 via Wechat or go to Karma Gadri Thangka Workshop, Tselne Village, Chushur County, Lhasa. 

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