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Spiritual strokes

Tibetan Thangka paintings, a part of the region's sacred traditions were the subject of a five-day workshop in the city


THANGKA PAINTING, part of Tibet's sacred art tradition, and Tanjore painting, our home-grown and now immensely popular art form, share a lot, apart from just the fact that they draw inspiration from all things devotional. The five-day workshop on Thangka art, organised by the National Folklore Support Centre (NFSC) at the Alliance Francaise of Madras, introduced 60 participants from the ages of 13 to 72 to the intricacies of the art form based on the philosophy of Vajrayana Buddhism.

The paintings of Thanjavur are rich, gleaming tributes to gods and goddesses, while Tibet's Thangka paintings are every bit as elaborate but less grand. Gold leaf work is replaced by ornamental gold brushwork, and the dominant theme is the Buddha. Thangka paintings are supposed to protect and are usually commissioned for a religious purpose. They are done by monks.

At the workshop, two Buddhist lamas, Pasang Lama and Ram Kumar Lama, gave out basic sketches of the various forms of Buddha on prepared boards for the participants to finish. "Thangka paintings can take up to six months to complete," explains Satya Narayan Tandukar from Nepal who was co-ordinating the workshop with the NFSC. "So we brought prepared boards and are just teaching the participants the painting technique." Tandukar also had a stall selling Buddhist prayer wheels, yin-yang pendants and panchaloha, copper bracelets and embroidered Thangka tapestries.

Thangka painting, similar to Tanjore art, is done on a cloth stretched across a wooden frame. A kind of resin, made from the willow tree (in Tanjore art, the glue is from the neem tree) is smeared on the cloth and board and then scraped off to create a surface smooth enough to paint on.


As in Tanjore art, the rough sketches are drawn following fixed proportions. This is the point at which the participants got to the boards and started work. Seven forms of the Buddha — Gautama Buddha, the Buddha of medicine, the Buddha of longevity and more — were sketched and after filling in the basic colours, the participants worked on the details. Vegetable dyes and stones are ground by the artists to create the colours.

Each Buddha has a specific colour, which cannot be changed as each portrayal is identified by the colour. For example, the Bhaisajyaguru or the medicine Buddha is navy blue, while Sakyamuni, Gautama Buddha is always yellow.

There are similarities to Hindu gods and goddesses, the Manjushree Buddha, which depicts knowledge, holds a lotus and rudhraksha, like Saraswati — the parallels come from the fact that Buddhism originated from Hinduism, explains Tandukar.

The last part of the Thangka painting is the face and finally the eyes and usually the features are completed at an auspicious time. "Thangka art is devotional — people pray to the pictures once they are completed. That is the main difference I find between Tibetan and Indian art. Indian art forms have been modernised, and are often used as decorative pieces, but Thangkas are still done traditionally and for the purpose of prayer," explains Ram Kumar Lama. The process of creating a Thangka painting is itself considered a form of meditation.

The final product is an elegant combination of rich and natural colours, coming together to form a figure that looks like it is going to ease itself off the board elegantly and dance.

SHALINI UMACHANDRAN

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