Thangka Art is a traditional form of art that represents the ancient traditions of Buddhists in Nepal. In today’s Nepalese market, Thangka has become a religious commodity as well as a souvenir flourishing the Nepalese tourist economy. Thangkas is used to spread the teachings of Buddhism by depicting the wheel of life (samsara) and interplay of religious deities in it. It is often painted on cotton or silk applique.
Thangka is unlike other forms of crafts given its religious significance. These paintings are understood as objects of devotion, an aid to spiritual practice, and apotropaic tools. While there is a variety of styles and iconography in the art form, the methods and conventions for creating such work are often highly defined and scriptural. In this blogpost, we identify and explore themes that serve as the discourse analysis of Thangka art in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Team ‘Samsara’ crafted the research paper titled “The Intersection of Tradition and Modernity in Thangka painting: Discourse Analysis” to understand the perspectives of artists, art sellers, galleries and buyers in this field during the course of eight weeks at Incubate Nepal.
Samsara, our team name, literally translates to the circle of life. Samsara is a process consisting of four major elements: Existence, Matter, the Cyclicality of all life, and Rebirth. Our paper when observed closely is found to be consisting of these four core elements.
The first element of Samsara: Existence
What is the motivation behind our project?
Discourse means ways of constituting knowledge about anything with their relation to its social practices. In our project, we explored the discourses surrounding Thangka art by conducting interviews and reading texts about it. We realized that there is a need to explore the underlying themes surrounding both the process of making a thangka and its dissemination in society. For that, we conducted interviews with a variety of Thangka artists, converted them into transcripts and studied them.
Table 1 below shows the category, name, and the number of the interviewees.
To boil it down, our research was performed to answer the question: What are the core discourses surrounding Thangka art in contemporary Nepalese society? In answering this question, we want our work to serve as a stepping stone for the general audience and the academic circles to learn more about this interesting field of Nepalese Art.
The second element of Samsara: Matter
What discoveries did our research yield?
While studying Thangka, we came up with four concrete ideas surrounding the discourse of Thangka, each of which we explain in further detail below:
- Method and Evolution (Tradition/Modernity)
- The conflict between the two facets: Religion and Commerce
- Interplay between the Art, Nepalese Culture, and Religion
- Difference between Thangka and Paubha art
1. Method and Evolution (Tradition/Modernity)
With the skills and techniques along with their religious significance passed down from generation to generation and from masters to their students, Thangka and Paubha (an art form similar to Thangka painting having a different origin) are important parts of the traditional Nepali culture. When conducting our research, we found that there was a high degree of variance in how people understood the origins of the art form. Thangka is said to be first painted in Tibet and is based on Buddhist philosophy whereas Paubha emerged from the Newar community of Nepal and is influenced by both Buddhism as well as Hinduism. But lack of documented evidence has made it difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of these art styles leading to an increased dependency on oral history, especially in Thangka painting.
In addition, it seems that most of the community is leaning towards slowly modernizing these traditional art forms while still trying to preserve its essence. The religious aspects of these art forms may be diminishing in value as enthusiasts appear to treat these paintings more as craft objects as well as see perceive more of their visual value instead of their religious value.
2. The conflict between the two facets: Religion and Commerce
Another major theme we found in our discourse analysis was the conflict between commercial and religious circuits of art consumption. Thangka paintings, which were once used as an essential piece of sacred art in the Buddhist community, are now used in a variety of other ways: as a meditative aid, a didactic tool, or as a conventional piece of art. Changes in the more tourist-oriented pieces have been evident in everything from formal elements like style and colors, to iconography and artistic approaches.
Mr. Kailash Shrestha, a contemporary Thangks artist stated:
Our society has been consuming art for aesthetic and cultural purposes rather than simply for religion.
Our interviewees’ statements have highlighted the obvious tide of commercialization of Thangka painting in Nepalese society.
3. Interplay between the Art, Nepalese Culture, and Religion
Thangkas often serve as the symbols of Nepali Culture, as evidenced by Romio Shrestha’s statements:
Seeing the evident lack of recognition and respect for Nepalese Art and Culture, I embarked on a venture of bringing Nepalese Art into the highlight of the world [through the promotion of Thangka].
Furthermore, we derive an interesting perspective from Mrs. Kavita Karki, a buyer and Nepali diaspora in the United States of America, when she says that she bought Thangka in order
to be reminded of her home, Nepal
These statements strongly indicate that Thangkas go beyond a particular culture or religion and serve as a representative of an imagined “unified Nepalese culture.” Thangka primarily served as a Buddhist cultural centerpiece that passed down the teachings of Buddhism from generation to generation. This passing down has now made Thangkas a major part of the Nepalese identity.
4. Difference between Thangka and Paubha art
Starting with the intention of depth discourse analysis on Thangka painting, our project found a deviated path when historians and museums in Nepal were found to be more inclined towards Paubha painting compared to Thangka painting. While these two forms of paintings look ostensibly the same, they have important differences in their histories, style and discourses. While we did not succeed in finding historians or professors in Nepal who had specialized in Thangka, we came across senior figures such as Lok Chitrakar whose insights on Paubha helped us see the difference.
The art historian Lok Chitrakar stands firm on opinion that Thangka and Paubha are different, however, he says,
Tibetan Thangka are influenced by Newari Paubha, as many Newari artists used to work in Tibetan monasteries.
The third element of Samsara: Cyclicality of Life which means birth and death.
The birth of Thangka. How did Thangka evolve?
Some say Thangka was first made out of Buddha’s reflection in a pond, other artists like Mr. Alok Siddhi Tuladhar hypothesize that Thangka Art was originally derived from Paubha art — an artform of similar kind prevalent in the Newar community of Nepal. The differences in oral histories surrounding the origin was made evident through our interviews.
It seems that in the process of evolving, the iconography of Thangka has been compromised due to its commercialization. Romio Shrestha, one of our interviewees voices that in the name of selling the art, artists have often resorted to cheap methods of Thangka production, which has brought about a severe loss of quality in the artform.
The fourth and the final element of Samsara: Rebirth
We discovered that there is a renewed interest in Thangkas lately. Artists are trying to preserve the original essence of the art and its value to Nepali society while being able to sustain themselves economically by commercializing it.
Drawbacks in our Methods
Our methods, however, do not come without drawbacks. Since all of our interviews were carried out in Nepali and transcriptions in English had to be translated, it could have brought some inaccuracies in our paper. However, we have tried our best to eliminate this by doing multiple re-readings of our translations. Secondly, although we interviewed 19 people in the discourse of Thangka, our paper could have had better findings with a larger number of interviewees. Furthermore, due to human biases we couldn’t ascertain the objectiveness of our interviewees’ statements.
Our road ahead shall encompass a bunch of tasks. First, we are going to publish the interviews. Then, besides discourse analysis, we are also going to explore more quantitative methods of analyzing texts, such as sentiment analysis and topic modeling. And finally, we want to add value to a wider audience through our work.
While working together for over eight weeks, we developed a bond of friend-like coworkers. Work division was managed well which led to the successful craft of the paper. Also, our co-mentor Oshin Panta came up with the phrase “Thangka You” which was a pun we often used. Our mentor Shreeansh Agrawal taught us the different approaches of looking at arts and paintings alongside writing a social science paper.
Student researchers: Aastha Ghimire, Manshuv Kafle, Suprabh Joshi, Yashashwee Shrestha, Yojana Gurung
Mentor: Shreeansh Agrawal
Co-mentor: Oshin Panta