Sunday, June 2, 2013

Arts and Crafts

Looking out at Thimphu-town

It has been a tumultuous few weeks. Yet, trying as some of these days have been, many of the days have been delightfully art-filled. I’m trying to focus on those parts, and it seems to be working out. Things are looking up.

Inside the paper factory
Some of our artsy excursions around Thimphu have been to traditional places such as the Jungtshi Paper Factory, which lies up the hill from the crafts market, and the Zorig Chusum Institute, which is at the northern end of Thimphu-town. The paper factory is one of the sites where the traditional hand-made paper is crafted from the bark of Daphne trees. One of the men in charge gave us a demo on how the paper is made, a process that starts by workers stripping and boiling the bark until it is very soft and pliant. It is then cooked again and a type of starch is added to act as a binding agent for the bark pulp. The pulp is gathered in basins and sometimes dyed using plant or vegetable dyes. No bleach is used. The workers then use screens, which they dip in the basins to collect the pulp in an even flat sheet. This sheet is then dried in stacks either in the sun or just left to air dry.

Sometimes they add flower petals or shredded bits of old money to the thick, luxurious paper.
Nowadays it seems that the paper is used more for fancy notebooks, envelopes, or paper crafts like lamps or wall art rather than simple writing paper. The religious books, called pecha are made from this paper, however. These books are long and narrow with fabric wrappings for covers, and the pages are flipped over the top rather than from the side as we are accustomed in the West. In the library, or in monasteries, the books are stored in the shelves long-ways, like safety-deposit boxes.

Zorig Chusum literally means thirteen crafts, and that is precisely what students study at the Institute. The programs are typically 6 years long, and the student graduates with a mastery of his or her chosen craft. 

The thirteen traditional art forms of Bhutan are:
Boys working on their Shagzo

Shingzo – Woodworking
Dozo – Masonry
Parzo – Stone Carving
Lhazo Painting
Jimzo – Clay Sculpting
Lugzo – Casting (of bronze or copper, usually via wax or sand casts)
Shagzo – Wood Carving
Garzo – Blacksmithing
Troezo – Jewelry Making
Students working on Tshemzo
Tsharzo – Bamboo Work
Dezo – Paper Making/Sculpting
Tshemzo – Tailoring/Embroidery (embroidery also called tshemdzu)
Thagzo – Weaving 

The intricacy and skill required for each of these arts is extremely admirable, but I especially liked seeing the clay sculptors at work. Before they are instructed at all in the actual art of sculpting, they must learn to gather and prepare their own clay, which they mix with Daphne paper in order to give the clay a lighter and more malleable consistency. This combination allows them to do the extended limbs, fingers, and flames depicted in their iconography. The goal in all of these traditional arts, especially sculpting and painting, is to recreate as near to an exact replica of the intended image. The artwork is merely a vessel for the deity it depicts, and is destroyed if it does not accurately enough capture the image of the deity. Artists usually don’t sign their work; it is not seen as the product or property of the individual.

inside VAST
Contemporary art is gaining popularity in Thimphu, however, and more and more galleries are popping up selling the work of individualistic artists. I have visited a few of these, including VAST (Volunteer Artists’ Studio Thimphu), which hosts art workshops for kids and adults. I had the opportunity to talk to one of its co-founders, Aza Kama, who is a well-established contemporary artist himself. He was trained both in the traditional art of painting and the more modern of graphic design. Many of his pieces feature beautifully blended scenes incorporating traditional images mixed with more impressionistic landscapes. I don’t have enough art vocabulary to describe it properly, but his work is absolutely stunning.

I also had the experience of seeing one of the most traditional of ritual-steeped art forms found in Bhutan when my fellow Wheaties and I attended the Parinirvana festival at the dzong in Thimphu. This festival, which falls on May 25th, celebrates five incredible events of the Buddha, which all miraculously fell on the same day. Very auspicious. These five events were his conception, his birth (pardon the potential sacrilege, but—his poor mother!), his enlightenment, his subjugations of many demons, and his death day. This meant that we would witness a Thongdrol, like we did at the Paro Tsechu. A Thongdrol is a multi-storied (in both the measurement and anecdote sense) appliqué art piece draped along the entire side of the inner building of the dzong. The word Thongdrol literally means “seeing liberation,” because one is blessed and cleansed simply by laying eyes upon the masterpiece. We were also allowed to practice Regdrol, which means “touching liberation,” by touching our foreheads to the base of the Thongdrol.
Thongdrel at the Parinirvana festival
I then followed suit with the many Bhutanese present and performed a few prostrations before the Thongdrol. Prostrations are an act of respect and prayer, and are performed by placing the hands, palms together, first at the top of the head, then at the lips, then at the center of the chest, in order to symbolize body, speech, and mind. Interestingly, the Bhutanese consider the mind, in the religious sense, to be housed in the chest, along with the heart. One then bends down, places one’s hands on the ground, and while kneeling, touches the forehead to the ground. This is done a minimum of three times, but most people do more. They must always be done an odd number of times, however.
People in line for blessings at Parinirvana in Thimphu

It has felt really good lately to engage in all this art, and I’m excited for the conference being held at RTC this week. In conjunction with the organization Helvetas, RTC is hosting this event on Leveraging Cultural Heritage, which aims to discuss and support the arts and skills of often-marginalized groups of Bhutan by promoting their works as something to be cherished and marketed, rather than be forgotten or absorbed into the more dominant dzongkha speaking, kira/gho wearing culture of Western and Central Bhutan.

Earning my official Bhutanese name
One last tidbit for this time: I got a Bhutanese name! A friend, Youden, took some of us to see her brother in Thimphu; he is a Lama. Though the process was fairly unceremonious, he simply sat with us and wrote out each of our names on a separate piece of scrap paper before handing it to us with a serious expression. We each smiled and clapped for each other, and Youden explained vaguely what each name meant. I am Dorji Wangmo. Dorji means a religious symbol, and Wangmo means something along the lines of great strength. I’m quite happy with my new name, though it hasn’t really caught on, and most people still call me Care-oh-leen. Of all the words that my name has rhymed with throughout my life (hairy, scary, berry), I can now add kerosene.

May all your lamps burn brightly.

With love,


1 comment:

  1. As soon as you teach me how to pronounce your Bhutanese name, I absolutely shall refer to you as such since I'm thinking "great strength" is far more fitting than the rhyming of kerosene (at the very least)
    Also, making paper is even more of a priority for next semester now that we've both learned!


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