By Abhinav Kaul
Magnificent colours, sense of history and form of storytelling make thangkas special
Among the most unlikely items that some collectors today covet is the thangka, the Tibetan religious scroll that tells a story in pictures painted in glorious colours. Their value lies in their rarity and intricacy of details. Antiquity lends much greater value. But not all thangkas are antiques. Thangkas are created even today and are much sought after. It’s not a lost art, but an art living more or less outside the limelight.
In a recent Sotheby’s auction, a 16th century thangka went for ¤27,150 when the reserve price was ¤15,000. The auction house also sold a 14th century thangka depicting Budhha Shakyamuni for ¤68,500. Other notable thangkas sold included a 15th century Vajravali painting that went for $277,000 and a 17th century Dhritarashtra painting that went under the hammer for $146,500. But for people with pockets not so deep are paintings still being done in select Tibetan settlements in India. They are no less than the antiques in terms of religious and spiritual value. And prices here too tend to be high.
Buddhist philosophy has a quaint way of describing the art: “You paint on a surface with water and the creation will come to life. Then, as the water slowly evaporates, the art will magically disappear leaving a clean slate and clear mind — ready for creating a whole new masterpiece again.” Legend has it that the art of painting thangkas was introduced to Tibet when two Indian kings approached the Buddha with a request to make a painting for them. The Buddha obliged them with a painting on water using nothing but moonlight. The painting was said to have the image of the Buddha himself. Over centuries thangkas have served as an important means of portraying the Buddha’s life. To the faithful, these paintings offer a beautiful manifestation of the divine, being both visually and mentally stimulating. Only a chosen few are allowed to paint them; the rigour of painting these scrolls has been meticulously detailed in ancient Tibetan scripture. Natural colours are a de rigueur, and gold and silver are used liberally as highlights. Usually, thangkas depict the Buddha and tell a tale about him or his immediate disciples. One of the most complicated forms is the mandala (a circle in Sanskrit). A mandala is special; it is a painting done in concentric circles, each carrying spiritual and ritual significance and telling a story. It is said that there are over a thousand types of mandalas.Travelling monks have carried thangkas with them wherever they went for ready-at-hand spiritual inspiration. For centuries the scrolls have been carried from monastery to monastery. Monasteries still have the best repertoire of thangkas. But the oldest and rarest are rarely shown to people outside the faith. Because they are few and far between, a certain mystic value has attached itself to thangkas. But thanks to the collector, the art form has been given a new life and is available to anyone willing to pay the right price. In swish homes, they have found a place on the living room wall.
Delhi’s Asha Chopra has come a long way – from being a thangka collector to Tibetan art seller. Long ago she lived on a tea estate in Darjeeling. Northeast India is where the Tibetans first came to escape persecution by the Chinese. Many drifted to other areas, including Darjeeling. Thangkas came with them. Wherever they built monasteries they painted thangkas. It was in Darjeeling that Chopra fell in love with thangkas. Later, after settling in Delhi, she started a business in procuring and selling thangkas. She frequently scours monasteries in Darjeeling and elsewhere. But some thangkas are never for sale; the religious association of some is too big for the Tibetans to trade them for money. Some of them are huge, covering entire inner walls of the sanctum sanctorum of the monasteries. “Every thangka tells a different story. One such story is about Padmasambhava, a great scholar who extensively travelled through Tibet, Nepal, China and India and spread Buddhism. Today many thangkas are painted to tell the story about his evangelism.” Asha started with 10 paintings she had brought to Delhi from Darjeeling and held her first thangka exhibition some 20 years ago. That was Indian collectors’ first exposure to thangkas. Appropriately, the exhibition was opened by the doyen of modernism in Indian art, BC Sanyal, who just went gaga over the paintings. Thangkas never looked back since. “The magnificent colours, the sense of history and the form of storytelling make thangkas so special,” says Chopra. Today, her Thakalis, a venture for Tibetan arts, is more a hobbyhorse that’s also business. She helps her friends and others serious collectors in making the crucial link needed to buy thangkas. And demand is ceaselessly growing. So much so, she has started a studio in Sikkim where artists create thangkas.
Other than the tale about the Buddha doing a painting on water with moonlight as his brush, not much is known about the origin of thangkas. The earliest mention was in 7th century texts, when Tibet began embracing Buddhism in a big way during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. From the 15th century onwards, brighter colours began to appear on the paintings. When Tibetans led by the present Dalai Lama fled from Chinese oppression, they were settled by India in many places, Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh in the main. They have also settled in Delhi and Bylakuppe near Mysore, besides many hill towns along the length and breadth of the Indian Himalayas. To preserve the centuries old art form, refugee settlements and monasteries like Norbulingka in Dharamshala opened thangka training institutes. But it is difficult to find a place that sells these openly. In Delhi, one such shop is Ravindra Art Palace on Delhi’s Janpath whose owner, Rajendar Kumar, says there is demand but not enough supply. Even cheap quickies are difficult to come by. “I source these paintings from Tibet and Nepal as most of those made in India are for private use or monasteries. There are many artists in Nepal and Tibet willing to make these in numbers,” says he. Clearly, there is a popular market, but mostly of foreigners. According to Kumar, foreigners or the few Indians who have some knowledge of Buddhism are aware of these paintings. “Each painting tells a different story; therefore, some understanding of Buddhism is a must; otherwise it’s just another painting on the wall,” says Kumar. At the cheapest, the thangkas he sells begin at Rs 5,000. “The cost depends on the detailing and the amount of gold, silver and precious stones used. The costliest ones can go up to Rs 3 lakh, says Kumar. In his experience, the thangkas most popular are those that have pictorial stories about Buddha Shakyamuni, the Blue Buddha, Buddha Amitabha and the mandalas. Creation of a thangka needs the discipline laid down in the scriptures. According to Tashi Chomthel, chief thangka artist of the Norbulingka institute in Dharamshala, thangkas painted today can take themes from Tibetan and Buddhist books but the artists have to strictly follow the set practices. “Tibetan religious books detail all the measurements and proportions, such as the size and proportions of the Buddha’s eyes, lips, nose and arms, measurements that have strictly followed since the 14th century. Even paintings made now follow the same measurements. We are not allowed to change them,” said Chomthel.
Chomthel offers what is required of a painter: “The artist must be an expert in the measurements and proportions of the Buddha and other deities and in Buddhist iconography. From preparation of the canvas to drawing the subject to mixing and applying colours, everything has to be done in meticulous detail and strict accordance with the scriptures.” Except for the mandala, which is painted on a square piece of canvas, thangkas are rectangular in shape. The size varies from a few millimetres to several meters. A large thangka takes a large team of artists months, even years, to make. Nambgyal, an artist at Bylakuppe, says the intricacy of details, artistry and use of precious metals and stones make thangkas costly. “Even a small no-frills painting can start at Rs 18,000. But I have made paintings that cost Rs 3 lakh apiece.” Gold and silver are the last elements to be used — mainly to highlight key features of the Buddha and other deities — after a painting is done. Semi-precious stones are added for further highlights. Precious metals, stones and gold thread are also used to enhance decoration. Together, they can have a dazzling effect.
So far the art of making thangkas has been passed down from generation to generation, but with the formation of the Tibetan institutes, others are also being initiated into this form of painting. In this way, the art form lives forever.zz