Fine art of restoration

A one-man initiative aids the monastic community

Fine art of restoration

Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and Others - thangka reproduction endorsed by HH the Dalai Lama

It all began a decade ago, when a trekker accidentally went into a dilapidated monastery in the Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. Once inside  he discovered  a 500-year-old structure — wall paintings covered with cobwebs, tattered scrolls and artifacts blackened with soot from butter lamps — changed his priorities and gave  new visibility to the beautiful Buddhist art hidden in these remote hilly villages for centuries.

And thus Kishore Thukral founded ‘‘Dhangkar Initiative,” a project that seeks to link restoration of the monastery and its associated temples with a livelihood generation programme for the local community. ‘‘Seeing the condition of the structure, located on a 1000-foot-high spur overlooking the confluence of the Spiti and Pin rivers, and its wall paintings and thangkas, I felt that something needed to be done,” says Kishore. ‘‘So after consulting with the monastic and the village communities I started this initiative whereby the thangkas were restored and their replicas made,” he says.

Teaching tools
A thangka is a painted or embroidered Buddhist banner that is hung in a monastery or a family altar, and occasionally carried by monks in ceremonial processions. It is a scroll painting which can be easily rolled and transported. Thangkas have served as important teaching tools depicting the life of the Buddha, various deities, bodhisattvas and historical personalities now deified. There are gods and goddesses, some benign, others wrathful, some universal, others local, almost always represented in one of the five colours of Vajrayana Buddhism — white, green, yellow, red or blue (black, in some cases). What finally differentiates them is their asana (posture), mudra (gesture), and their attributes and accompanying symbols.

Back in Delhi, Kishore along with his friend Sunil Nandrajog set up Tusita Divine Art Pvt. Ltd for the thankga project. ‘‘We believe that ours is a model of responsible business, whereby we give up to 75 per cent of our earnings to the chokhangs or the small temples owned by families, where thangkas are kept,” Kishore says.

They reproduce on canvas the thangkas that Kishore has photographed over the last several years in these remote chokhangs.  Each thangka is reproduced in six different sizes, on canvas that is imported from Germany. It is then stitched with contemporary fabric, albeit in traditional fashion. When asked about the uniqueness of his conservation project Kishore says while the Archaeological Survey of India takes care of the Tabo monastery, the smaller chokhangs have been left to fend for themselves. ‘‘Spiti usually gets just about two thousand tourists a year, and most of them only do a whistlestop tour of the major monasteries and of Kaza, the sub-divisional headquarters. The chokhangs in the far-flung villages are unknown to the tour operator and well-nigh inaccessible to the outsider, but the rare thangkas hanging in them are breathtakingly beautiful...and seen by none but the locals," says Kishore, who has recently organized an exhibition of the replicas of the colourful scrolls in Delhi. For the young photographer, the first challenge was to reach them and then work out for their conservation as these small temples lack the resources to maintain or carry out any restoration. Now through his efforts Dhangkar was recognized by the World Monuments Fund as one of the hundred most endangered historical sites in the world for the period 2006-2007.

‘‘We approached these chokhangs with the proposal that we would digitally reproduce their thangkas in different sizes on 410 gsm Hahnemuhle canvas to give them the archival look, stitch them in the traditional fashion with contemporary fabric, and then sell them and give a major part of the earnings back to the chokhangs to help them maintain and restore the originals," says Kishore. Each reproduction of these rare thangkas brought out by Tusita is accompanied by a well-researched and detailed description written in close consultation with senior monks and with reference to authoritative works by scholars of Tibetan Buddhist art - a first of its kind again. Beautifully designed in a ‘‘calendar-like format", it complements the thangka and can be hung alongside the reproduction.

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