It’s tough to make a living as an artist in Nepal- as just about anywhere else. Even when your art is exquisitely executed, sacred, and deeply revered by the community, sometimes you just can’t make ends meet.
This was the situation for traditional Buddhist thangka painters in villages throughout the hills and mountains of Nepal in the early 1980s. Tsonamgel Lama, the coordinator of Tushita Heaven Thangka Cooperative, recalls, “The shopkeepers wouldn’t buy high quality thangkas at a decent price, so the painters had to reduce the prices, and then they couldn’t afford the materials to make the better thangkas.” The tradition of sons learning thangka
painting from their fathers was also weakening as young men lost interest in traditional disciplines and saw little chance to support themselves if they followed this path.
In a village in the Rammechhap district in 1984, four Tamang thangka painters joined together to change their fortunes and preserve the quality of their art. Under the leadership of famed painter Indra Lama, they formed a thangka cooperative to start selling directly to buyers, using the profits to invest in better materials and to improve life for their families and villages. Over the years, this modest effort has blossomed into a thriving business and center for artist development involving over 200 painters now centered in a storefront on the Boudha Stupa circle
In the Shop
Today, Tushita Heaven Thankga Cooperative shines like a many faceted jewel above the dusty brick walkway surrounding the Boudha Stupa. Small sparkling thangkas are laid out flanking the entrance, and inside the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with countless magnificent paintings. Buddhas, bodhisattvas, wrathful deities, mandalas, and wheels of life in vivid colors with exquisite detail – some larger than life, some much smaller than a breadbox - shine down from every angle. Some are surrounded by the traditional rich brocade fabric that they can be rolled up in. Others are protected by glass and wood frames carved with a simple lotus motif. A second room upstairs is also lined with thangkas, and often with painters. Tsonamgel, a former Buddhist monk who holds degrees in history and mathematics and has been proprietor of the shop since 1988, greets each visitor warmly, often by name and with a steaming cup of tea. 70% of the thangkas here are sold to local Buddhists, many to monasteries, and Tsonamgel knows the community. “People come to us because they know we do high quality work, we keep the traditions, and we offer fair prices,” explains Tsonamgel. Sometimes a family or a monastery will commission a thangka, such as one ‘life of Buddha’ that took up an entire wall. More often, people ask Tsonamgel to show them thangkas of whatever themes they are most interested in. For one German customer wanting a wrathful Mahakala, Tsonamgel looks through the neat rolls stored behind the desk and carefully pulls out one, then another, another, and another. He rolls each out on the desk and carefully pins the corners down with multi-colored glass globes. Each painting has slightly different colors, different details, a subtly different expression on the Mahakala’s face. Some customers sit fascinated with these differences for long stretches of time, trying to find the perfect thangka for meditation practice, their living room, a gift or an investment, with comments such as “I want a Manjushree that really has wise eyes.” “I like more reds.” “Find me one with mountains in the background.” Tsonamgel knows the story behind the figures on each thangka, and points out the stylized tiger and leopard skins demonstrating the Mahakala’s fierceness. He has also prepared written descriptions and explanations of all the major deities, and turns to print one off the computer for his customer, asking “Would you prefer in English or German?” “German? Really?” she gasps, clearly touched that someone would bother to put this information in her own language.
The 200 thangka painters of Tushita Heaven are primarily Tamang and Sherpa men from a handful of mountain districts such as Rammechhap, Kavre, and Solu Khumbu, with a few Tibetans from Pokhara and Boudha. Although Tibetans arriving in Nepal since 1959 have definitely broadened the interest and activity in this Buddhist art form, Tamang and Sherpa people brought the art with them when they migrated from Tibet centuries ago, and have kept thangka painting alive in Nepal ever since. But with smaller communities and monasteries, few painters were able to make a living through their art. One Tamang Tushita painter explained, “My father and many other relatives painted a few thangkas, just for local pujas, but I am the only fulltime painter in my family.”
50 of the painters with Tushita Heaven are direct shareholders in the cooperative, and each of them have a small group of local painters who work with them. Sometimes these are their younger brothers or sons as in the traditional system, sometimes they are apprentices, and sometimes they are experienced independent painters. Each painter must eventually complete a 5-6 year apprenticeship and cannot formally become a shareholder in the cooperative until they have finished at least their fourth year of apprenticeship. The cooperative itself provides apprenticeships, accepting poor students who seem promising and are willing to make at least a three-year commitment. First year apprentices receive free room and board. At the end of the first year they are able to make a real contribution to the thangkas and begin receiving remuneration for their work.
The Painting Process
The work of creating a thangka is painstaking. Each painting requires six steps: 1) preparation of the canvas; 2) transfer of the thangka drawing; 3) application of the main paint; 4) shading and color gradations; 5) outlining; and 6) finishing details. Different artists may work on different steps on the same painting; for example Tsonamgel was polishing the gold paint on another artist’s elaborate Medicine Buddha thangka as we chatted. Smaller and simpler thangkas may be completed in three to five days, but more complex, precise and larger thangkas may require up to a year of steady work. Some thangkas for religious use require specific conditions for their creation; for example one type must be painted between sunrise and sunset on an auspicious day. Painters may specialize in making a few different types of thangkas, and although there are very consistent standards in thangka figures – the body position, the facial proportions, the basic colors, some elements of the backgrounds - sometimes its easy to recognize the work of an individual painter by their specific style. I noticed similar serene glowing expressions on the faces of a White Tara (Bodhisattva of Compassion), a Medicine Buddha, and a Manjushree (Bodhisattva of Wisdom), and learned that they were created by the same painter - who I had the good fortune to meet. Nyima Lama is a Tamang painter member who was trained through Tushita Heaven and has worked here for twelve years. He told me, “The most difficult part of painting is the drawing. Everything else rests on that.” Tsonamgel concurs. “It takes three to four years before an apprentice can really draw a face. The students begin working with their teacher’s drawings, learn the basic coloring, then gradation, lining, applying the gold. Later they start drawing small, easy details like leaves, decorations on the dress...” He goes on to say that these days most (other) painters learn drawing too quickly and as a result do not develop a deep understanding and expressive ability. Both men agree that the Tushita apprenticeship system has made a real difference in developing both the ability of their painters and the quality of their art, which has a solid reputation of being both beautifully done and faithfully adhering to Buddhist traditions.
Art and Business
Tsonamgel explains that Tushita Heaven has two purposes: “to keep Buddhist art and culture alive, and to keep hand to mouth for poor painters, to support their families’ education.” To do both they strive to keep the traditions, put out top quality work, and adjust for the demands of the market.
“There are buyers in two categories,” observes Tsonamgel, “those who want thangkas for Buddhist practice, and those who want decorative pieces.” He says those interested in thangkas as art usually choose the Mandalas, the Wheel of Life, and the Life of Buddha. (Less than five minutes after this remark, a cheerful young Danish couple comes in to pick out a bright Mandala for the man’s parents. “We wanted to ask if it’s the right color for them, but we don’t want to spoil the surprise,” he muses.) Buddhist practitioners usually select one of the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas; the Buddha Shakyamuni, White Tara, Green Tara, Manjushri, Vajropani, and Chenrezig are among the most frequently asked for. Tsonamgel notes that these are common to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, but that each of the four schools (Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Gelugpa) also has their own special root gurus (Lama), family gods (Yidam) and Dakini (female deities or Khandro). Tsonamgel keeps track of what is selling, and reports back to the painters of the cooperative so they can adjust their output accordingly. “If today I paint the White Tara, maybe tomorrow I make the Mandala,” says Nyima. Tsonamgel adds, “Sometimes to compete in the market we have to buy from painters outside the cooperative; we’re not always able to meet the demand within the group.”
Nyima Lama is very pleased with the success of the cooperative. “Everyone working together brings strength,” he observes, “Especially during a crisis time, its much easier. We can still earn something from our painting.” Tsonamgel elaborates that the cooperative buys the paintings of each member at a basic price, and if a thangka is sold at a higher price, the business shares the extra profit with the individual artist.
As for the future of Tushita Heaven, Tsonamgel promises, “We will be here as long as the painters need it.” For Buddhist practitioners and lovers of Buddhist art, we can hope that that will be indefinitely.
For more information, visit Tushita Heaven Cooperative (also called Tushita Heaven Handicrafts) on the Boudha Stupa Circle, just east of the main gate.