Resurrecting a Lost Heritage

Features Issue 205 Dec, 2018

 Beyond the mighty Himalayas, perched on gigantic plateaus, Tibet is a fantastically fascinating place. What comes to your mind when you hear ‘Tibet’—the Dalai Lama, Potala Palace, Buddhism, Free Tibet Movement, khapsey, shyabhale, Bhrikuti? Well, ‘furniture’ never crossed your mind, did it? One rarely links Furniture to Tibet, but a unique tradition of furniture-making did evolve there, imbuing aspects of Nepali, Chinese, and Central Asian metal and wood work. Not to get confused though, it has produced some Remarkable original features, too. As Italian explorer and anthropologist FoscoMaraini put it beautifully, “Their painting and sculpture are in Indian, or sometimes, Chinese style, partially Tibetanized, but in their Furnishings the Tibetan spirit expresses itself with much greater freedom.” The elaborate paintings, sober Colors, elegant motifs, and aesthetic value make it less like a piece of furniture and more like a work of art in Itself.

            Luca Corona, along with his wife, Camilla, has been restoring Tibetan furniture for the past couple of Decades. He has a stupendous collection in the resort he runs, Chandra Ban Resort, in Buddhanilkantha. Working for a travel agency in the 90s in Italy brought him in close contact with Tibetan artifacts. He has Remained an ardent admirer of them since then. He loved them, because unlike Western furniture thatis mass Produced by machines, Tibetan furniture is made individually by artisans. Each item is unique, with the Artisans leaving their own mark on them, thus turning them into masterpieces in their own right. He has taken It upon himself to restore Tibetan furniture and has spent a great deal of time studying on the topic. He has Been very resourceful in bringing in antique furniture, adroit craftsmen, and thangka artists together for his Mission. He was lucky to have met a Tibetan refugee who was both master carver and painter, who was of Immense help.

  The backstory of the furniture is far from insipid. These items were made primarily for the Monasteries. They were altars, high tables, and trunks. Hence, many are covered in religious art. Sir Charles Bell, the political officer for Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet in the early twentieth century, noted, “Apart from the Chapels with their altars, images, and other religious paraphernalia, there is not much furniture in a Tibetan Couse.” So, most of the furniture that landed in Mr. Corona’s possession came from the monasteries or the Houses of the urban elite. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the Chinese soldiers ruthlessly Plundered the monasteries. They took away most of the statues, precious gems and metals, shrines, and Thangka paintings. However, the wooden furniture was not deemed as valuable by the Chinese. Subsequently, They were distributed to the villagers around the monasteries, who kept them in the basement which they Also used as kitchens. Subsequently, most of the furniture was heavily covered with soot, completely Blackening the surface. They also used the furniture, especially the trunks, to store grains. Stuffed with grain, Tremendous pressure fell on the joints, which would eventually give in. Thus began the terrible degradation of This splendid furniture. On top of it, in the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s, these furniture became a Symbol of the old social order. An entire generation of artisans and craftsmen saw the demand of their work Plummet. Their skills were almost lost to history.

 The 80s saw the revival of interest in Tibetan furniture. Dealers would go yelling, “Do you have Something old to sell?” But, the way these dealers handled the acquired furniture was highly problematic. They would use thinners to clean the soot and dirt. They even used nitro-based industrial paint, which did Considerable damage to the art on the furniture. Luca Corona had to go through the painstaking process of Removing those layers of abrasive paint without destroying the original pigments. However, if a considerable Part of it was in need of repair, its originality would be in serious question. Nowadays, due to escalating demand, many fakes have found their way into the market. They are industrially produced furniture in the old Tibetan designs. Some paint and dirt are even added to make it look antique. So, great skill was necessary to Distinguish the genuine furniture from the replicas. Without any formal training or courses available, he learnt the techniques of restoration through trial and error. He humorously recounts having destroyed many old Furniture items in the process, while many of the furniture were also damaged during transportation. However, he did sometimes find furniture that was immaculately preserved.

  At present, he is living in Nepal running the resort with his wife. Enveloped by the forest, the resort is Mainly a tranquil retreat for yoga and meditation. The fresh air, clean water, and warm sunlight lure tourists From far and wide. It is built in a way that exudes an antique vibe, nonetheless, complete with modern Amenities. Apart from the authentic Tibetan furniture, bricks used to construct it were taken out of an old Rana house, or maybe even a palace, as it has ‘Shri Teen Chandra Shumsher’ stamped on them. Mr. Corona Started restoring old Tibetan furniture primarily for this resort. He does send some of them as gifts to his Family and friends back in Italy. Well, aren’t they lucky to be his friends?! While talking of Italy, let’s not forget The glorious past of the Italians. It is where the Renaissance took place, and it inevitably is home to numerous Art restorers. He contacted some of them and learnt a few tricks himself.

        He finds Tibetan furniture quite simple. It is generally made up of pinewood. Spruce and fir are also Frequently used. These kinds of wood are more durable in the harsh climate and less susceptible to insects. Regarding the simplicity of the construction of the furniture, he writes, “This attitude towards furniture, also in A way, explains the absence of a refined aesthetic in either the proportions or joinery of Tibetan furniture that Is such an essential part of classic Chinese furniture. It is in their carved and painted decorations that their true Refinement lies, and we can see there an unhindered expression of a Tibetan aesthetic….” It is restoring the Painted parts that he finds most challenging.

He tries to use paints and colors that are closest to the original. These colors were made from natural Oxides and some minerals native to Tibet. Red is the most popular color for the background. It is derived from Cinnabar or vermilion. Green and blue are employed to contrast with the red background. Both green and Blue pigments need special attention while cleaning, as they are the weakest of all. Green is derived from Malachite, and blue from azurite. These minerals, found in sandy form, are crushed and cleaned. Different Shades of these colors can be obtained by grinding them less or more. You will rarely find old Tibetan furniture With a yellow background, as yellow is derived from a sulfide of arsenic and is highly poisonous. Gold and silver are sometimes applied on the outlines of the paintings on the furniture to lend luster and durability. It Was only later on that synthetic paints were used on their furniture.

The raised gesso technique, kyungbar, is distinct to the Tibetan art found on their furniture. It is usually Used for making zipaks or the scales of a dragon’s body. Tibetans usually include eight auspicious symbols on Their furniture: conch, endless knot, lotus, parasol, vase, fish, Dharmachakra, and Dhvaja. The emperors of The Ming and Qing dynasties were patrons of Tibetan monasteries. They would send a variety of brocades Made into hangings, banners, drapes, and costumes to the monasteries. The paintings in the furniture were Also influenced by these brocades. However, some furniture was not painted at all, but rather, covered in Leather. Such leather-covered trunks were used for caravans. Furniture that were to be fitted in alcoves were Also left unpainted, as their sides would not be seen.

Researchers have ascribed Newari craftsmen from the Kathmandu Valley with the introduction of the Art of wood carving into Tibet. During the reign of SongtsenGampo in the seventh century, they played a Pivotal role in the construction of the Jokhang, the main temple in Lhasa. The Newari influence was not just Limited to furniture. Newari-style wood carving is found on the pillars, main beams, and brackets in almost all Monasteries in that area, and also in some aristocratic homes. Arniko, the head of a delegation of eighty Newari artists, is credited with the dissemination of the traditional Newari architecture in China and Tibet. The Mural of Ratnasambhava in Segoma chapel of Shalu clearly bears close ties with the classical Newar art of Kathmandu Valley.

Mr. Corona is more interested in non-religious art on the furniture, despite spirituality being a Ubiquitous aspect of the Tibetan life. His favorite furniture is a cabinet painted exquisitely with the daily Routine of the Tibetans. It has beautiful scenery, herdsmen chasing cattle, Tibetan men enjoying a ride around The mountains, various wildlife, and an old man sitting idly by. It offers a rare glimpse of life in Tibet in the Ancient times. These antique pieces are a reflection of the character of these people. Quoting the explorer Maraini once more, “It is a style which seems natural to a country of boundless plateau, to a people who set Out on 2,000 mile journeys on horseback as if it were the most natural thing in the world, who are used to Violent gales and extreme cold, who pass with ease from the rigours of asceticism to hearty enjoyment of life, Who laugh, play, fight, drink, make love, kill, repent, believe in miracles and are, in short, full of an Inexhaustible vitality.”