THANGKA PAINTING WORKSHOP, KALABHAVANA
THANGKA PAINTING WORKSHOP, KALABHAVANA
17-27 MARCH 2013
Thangka painting is chiefly dedicated to Lord Buddha in our perception; though it is essentially an oriental practice of painting on cloth, cotton or silk, by natural paints by those available hundreds of years back. The thangka scroll is not exactly a flat creation like an oil painting, but usually laid over a decorative silk cover. A thangka painting usually lasts long, but has to be kept in a dry place to avoid the moisture that can accumulate over the natural colours. The workshop held at Kala Bhavana was thangka painting with a predominant Buddhist focus. I came to know that thangka was a Nepalese art which both the Buddhsits and Hindus used, which was subsequently exported to Tibet at around 11th century AD.
The subject being unknown I was naturally interested, but not exactly with an academic perception. One thing about Lord Buddha, I definitely noticed from my past exposures, that the images of Buddha always appear in perfect scale of proportions, be it a painting (specially thangka painting) or large idols. Buddha always appears to be in perfect poise. The uniformity of scale in representation is remarkable; Lord Buddha always appeared identical almost everywhere.
The strict adherence to the geometric scale, to depict Buddha is an enviable practice, having deep implications. Every posture of Lord Buddha, usually depicting a certain mood or a certain phase of affairs, is a categorically specified state of Buddha as per religious text. The posture, the mood, the colours, even the accessories, everything is clearly specified leaving very little chance for any kind of deviation. This has been going on for more than a millennium duly guided by the holy text. So, a Thangka artist has to master this geometry of scale at the very first initiation. This tradition is to be strictly adhered to; otherwise disrespect is shown to the concept of Lord Buddha; which in religious plane is tantamount to a sin committed.
The most interesting part is, to maintain this rather strict geometric dimensions, marked slices of bamboos are used! These kind of measuring apparatus of different dimensions are used for a small thangka painting, or a large wall painting. An interaction with Prema Wangyal Bhuita (obviously Prema-da by now according to Santiniketan norms!) made me comprehend the great synergy between all images of Lord Buddha with which we are accustomed.
The life of a thangka painter was an interesting story delivered in a joyous mood by Prema-da, eagerly followed by teachers and students of Kala Bhavana along with me. Prema-da belonged to a family of Buddhist priest. In a priest family boys were supposed to be offered to the monastery to follow and propagate the Budddhst traditions and the girls actually went to formal schools, quite in contrast with practices elsewhere! Prema-da was sent to a monastery till the age of 13 studying Tibetian language and Buddhist text, and then his Guru sent him to another monastery to learn thangka painting. There for next 9 years he remained a disciple to his Thangka painting guru. For this tenure of studentship of 9 years, the master thangka painter has to provide all fooding and lodging for all his disciples. So, according to acceptable practices of Gurukul, the disciples had to perform all house hold scores including a bit of farming and rearing herds, and odd jobs as and when necessary along with learning to paint. The initiation ofcourse starts with study of the near perfect geometry of all Buddha postures and learning about their religious significance. After that 9 year stint, there will be another 3 year of being an apprentice to the master thangka painter, accompanying him in his commissioned works. This phase will earn the apprentices a bit of pocket money from the master painter. After this 9+3=12 year stint a disciple is free to pursue his own trajectory.
The spectacular part of the thangka painting on Lord Buddha in his many representation is, apart from the ornamentation part at the periphery little is available for any kind of redesign. The basic reason is Buddhists all over the world meditate in front of these paintings, and any aberration in the painting (or the sculptured idol) is supposed to generate a wrong kind of ethereal vibe, unsuited for that specific type of meditation. Compared to the idolization of Hindu God and Goddesses, for example the idol of Devi Durga say, this strict adherence to initial forms certainly makes the images of Buddha fairly disciplined work of art shunning all unwanted whims and frills. Naturally this strong sense of unity inspires a revered awe to us whenever we come across a thangka scroll. On the other hand such strict discipline, for an artist’s point of view, is actually a restriction imposed on his creativity. In this regard I was not too sure whether thangka painting should be termed a work of art in the real sence of art. Rather it appears to me to be a very specific religious adaptation of art.
The discussion so far, leads us to the pertinent question of how to define art? We all know, hundreds of years ago, all art work was more or less focused on representing religious ideas, ideologies and icons. The great traditional Indian painting started in the Gupta era from Ajanta, which essentially is a depiction of life and activities of Lord Buddha. Now, though the images of Ajanta are not so geometrically uniform, like the thangka paintings under deliberation, the Ajanta paintings still have that religious mooring- which according to modern verb is still a kind of restriction imposed on the artists on the subjects represented. Can that also be a case of curtailing free expression by artists? Can religious art be called an art at all? Well, this is not actually in my domain of expertise, rather I would leave this to the learned ones in our fraternity.
But the notable point here is, after being familiar with the great geometric strictures of a thangka painting, I was naturally compelled to assess religious paintings from other dimensions as well.
In any case, as a learning experience, this must had been a wonderful experience for the Kala Bhavana students. Adhering to strict discipline is also a very essential feature in any form of knowledge; to curb the natural and go for a collective expression is also a great social art that needs to be appreciated and cultivated once in a while. I am sure the workshop helped the students of Kala Bhavana immensely to learn about the nuances of art, and for me, the non professional, a intriguing opportunity to delve into the world of thangka painting; thanks to the Kala Bhavana authorities for this wonderful effort.