MAIN STORY: Bhutan is known for its unique culture, its traditional arts and crafts. This all can be clearly seen in the ancient and modern structures, images and artefacts. This is testimony to a practice that have been gradually developed through centuries and passed down from generation to generation.
Bhutanese traditional skills or crafts are defined and classified as zorig chusum (zo means the ability to make, rig means the science or craft, and chusum means 13). It is believed that zorig chusum was first formally categorized during the rule of the fourth Desi Tenzin Rabgye (1680-1694).
But with the country increasingly getting exposed to modernization, traditional arts and crafts are facing threat as more and more cheaper substitutes flood the market. Already, a few crafts are dying with the master craftsmen as younger generation seek new career path elsewhere.
Echoing similar sentiment is Jigme Dorji, 58, from Paro. He has been practicing the art of traditional mask carving (bapzo) for more than 40 years. He lives in Thimphu.
Sitting under the warm sunlight, with different types of sculpting tools laid in front of him, Jigme Dorji intensely carves out what looks like a stag’s face. Later, he confirms that it’s indeed a mask of a stag. Beside him there are completed works of an artist, freshly painted masks, ready to hit the market.
Before venturing into a private business of his own, Jigme Dorji was a teacher at the National Institute of Zorig Chusum for 12 years.
“Before, when such institutes where not there, the traditional arts and crafts were at the risk of disappearing,” Jigme Dorji said. “However, today, with students studying at such institutes, I’m happy that our traditional arts and crafts will remain for generations to come.”
For Jigme Dorji, sculpting a mask takes about three days to a week. He makes a decent amount of income from his craft.
“Among the foreign handicraft items in the shops today, it’s impossible to find an imported mask since it requires manual labour and practiced skills,” he said. “However, this is not the case with other traditional arts and crafts, which are replicated and imported by Bhutanese today.”
A handicraft shop owner in Thimphu, Kinzang Wangdi, said he imports about 10 percent of handicraft items from nearby countries since it’s much cheaper.
Kinzang Wangdi mostly imports traditional Buddhist paintings (thangka), half-completed, which comes at an affordable price.
“I do the finishing work of the thangka here. We mainly import when our stocks are running dry. Since these are factory-made, the quality is differs slightly,” Kinzang Wangdi said. “Sometimes it’s too expensive to buy a local products, not only for the shop owners but also for customers as well. They always look for cheaper and affordable souvenirs items.”
The shop must make profit, said Kinzang Wangdi, who employs about 14 people artisans, craftsmen and seamstress. “It takes a lot of work and time for the employee to refill the stocks at the shop, so I have to import cheaper and readily available handicraft items.”
Since there are many handicraft shops in Thimphu, Kinzang Wangdi said handicraft owners have to be aware of the rising competition. Selling cheaper substitute helps.
Despite increasing competition among the handicraft shop owners, there are a few who stick to selling authentic Bhutanese arts and crafts.
Sangay Tenzin, 26, has been practicing the traditional art of thangka painting for 16 years. He has eight employees under him. Any day you walk into Sangay’s workplace, they can be seen painting throughout the day. Sometimes, it takes about 10 days to complete a thangka painting. Their efforts are indeed meticulous and breathtakingly beautiful.
“I work to promote genuine thangkas and our traditional crafts. There should be job opportunities for people who are graduate from traditional art institution every year,” Sangay Tenzin said. “Since there aren’t many jobs, creating such avenues for young people who are engaged in such arts and crafts is important.”
Bhutanese thangka can’t be replicated, Sangay Tenzin said. “We have specific style of drawing (rimo) and set of guidelines to follow. Finished products have excellent quality and set of colours.”
Despite rise in imported handicraft items in the shops, one can see that the imported ones do not have elements of genuine Bhutanese traditional arts and crafts, Sangay Tenzin said. “Bhutanese arts and crafts have a certain uniformity of style and have unique expression of Bhutaneseness.”
When one paints a thangka, it is considered as an act of spiritual devotion, Sangay Tenzin said. “Painters have to purify themselves physically and spiritually, and then meditate on the piece they are about to create. It is in itself a beautiful work of art.”
The tradition and techniques of painting is passed down from one lhadrip (painter) to another. “We try to work with naturally pigmented paints made from soil and local dyes to paint a thangka,” added Sangay Tenzin.
Sangay Tenzin is a graduate from Choki Traditional Art School in Thimphu that offers free training in traditional Bhutanese crafts such as weaving, wood carving and painting to the students, who usually come from economically disadvantaged family.