Come, Marvel at Bhutanese Art

Bhutan isn’t only about treks, hikes, and visits to dzongs and monasteries. It has so much more to offer.

Various people come to Bhutan for various reasons. Some come to trek, others to visit monasteries or just to get away from their daily routines. But there are a few who come solely to marvel at and understand Bhutanese art.

Just a week back, I met one such soul from England.

He had started his first day in Thimphu at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum – locally known as the Painting School. And, there, he had observed students at work.

“I was surprised,” he said to me, “that traditional art forms in Bhutan have such a strong foothold.”

He was not wrong in his observation.

The Painting School imparts knowledge and education to young pupils on Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts and crafts – from clay work to carving and weaving—handed down through an apprenticeship system dating back to the 17th century.

In just a few years time, the students are well on their way to carving statues of deities for the country’s monasteries, and handloom fabrics for Bhutanese textile museums and for everyday use.

“I saw a group painting a huge thangka (religious scroll) fastened to wooden frames,” said my English friend Nigel. “They were so engrossed in the intricate designs that none of them looked up or even noticed me in the room.”

He added that the young apprentices splashed striking hues and shades to the thangkha

Bhutanese thangkhas are interwoven with geometrical patterns of squares and circles to portray an exquisitely coherent world filled with dragons and mandalas and prayer wheels. As they are all spiritual and religious in nature most thangkhas represent goodness like in the mandala that represents the eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism.

“I was awestruck by the painting’s intricacy,” Nigel said. “And the young chaps (painters), I noticed, were following some strict unwritten rule.

Here again he was right.

As artwork in Bhutan is rooted in Buddhism, all works of art, like I mentioned earlier, are religious in nature. The young artists are trained by their watchful teachers to follow a set of iconography rules in order to be precise in the proportions and elements of each artwork. But what is striking is the fact that the artwork, often, always is anonymous.

“Even on my way out,” said Nigel, “I noticed the hand-carved railings were meticulously painted.”

I smile, and tell him that not all Bhutanese art is of religious essence. In recent years, there have been a good number of contemporary art galleries that have mushroomed in Thimphu. They promote visual art that juxtaposes the old and the new.

I suggest that he visit the Volunteer Artists’ Studio Thimphu—popularly known as VAST—a non-profit organization that nurtures and promotes a new generation of young Bhutanese artists. It was founded in 1998 by a group of classically trained artists keen on using traditional techniques to produce contemporary work.

“That will be my top priority,” Nigel smiles back before downing his beer.

Bhutanese art has its own brand of brilliance, especially traditional art. As a visitor, if you visit any of the dzongs in Bhutan after a visit to the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, everything comes into perspective- thangkas adorning the temple walls, large-scale sculptures in the courtyard, masterfully hand-painted woodwork throughout the dzong.

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