Well-known thanka artist from Ladakh, Tsering Wangdus talks about his lifelong devotion to the art. It is half past four when we reach the entrance of Photang monastery in Shey, the former Capital of Ladakh. By local standards, it is about time to wind up work for the day. You still borrow a minute or two to admire the enchanting panorama you find yourself in.

It is half past four when we reach the entrance of Photang monastery in Shey, the former Capital of Ladakh. By local standards, it is about time to wind up work for the day. You still borrow a minute or two to admire the enchanting panorama you find yourself in. A nunnery, Photang monastery is on an open field surrounded with white stupas and swathed in a deep-blue sky with specks of snow white clouds staring down. The sounds of Buddhist chants wafting out of the central prayer hall and groups of nuns in red robes and tonsured heads silently drifting in and out of the entrance add a tinge of divinity to the experience.

Headed by Drukchen Rimpoche, the head lama of the Dukpa sect, the monastery is undergoing renovation and the man in charge of the work is Tsering Wangdus, the person you are looking for. Wangdus has been accorded a Padma Shri in 1999 for his talent in religious paintings, particularly in thanka making. He is one of the handful of Ladakhis to receive this national honour, be it in the arts or otherwise.

We find Wangdus on the first floor of the monastery. With his oldest student, Kunchok Rikzin, who has been with him for 30 years, the63-year-old Wangdus is on one of the wooden ledges set up in a hall to reach the higher edges of the walls. With pencils and charcoal marks, Rikzin is helping Wangchuk make an impression of a murti, a holy man with Oriental eyes and a flowing beard, on a wall.

“It is merely the beginning. Just to put the design on the wall it took two of us four days,” says Wangdus, climbing down the ledge. Once the basic design is done, it will take three artists 20 days to complete painting the murti. He would draw two more life-size murtis on the wall and use around 50 colours to liven them up. “These paintings are taken from religious books, nothing from my imagination,” he states, a gentle smile lighting up his face. With the harsh winter months approaching, he knows the work would halt for about three months. “I hope snow doesn’t spoil the walls,” he says.

Wangdus settles down on a chair and, over sweet milky tea, talks about his first passion, thanka painting. He reels back to the days that introduced him to the art. “My guru was a Tibetan lama who came to live in a refugee camp here in the 1960s. He left after about three years to a Tibetan settlement in Mussoorie. I still feel my education in religious painting is incomplete.” Though thankas are an important part of Ladakhi life, teaching thanka art became a rarity across Ladakh “after the Jammu kings took over the region.” Says Wangdus, “With no royal patronage, it became a dying art. Gradually it became difficult to find people who knew the art well.” So even though a young Wangdus wanted to be a hakeem (herbal doctor), on coming across the Tibetan lama, his father insisted that he take lessons from him.

“Life changed after this. I continued with the art. So when the Government started the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies in Choklamsar (about 10 kms from Leh), I joined it as a lecturer in painting.” Wangdus, a national master craftsman awardee, taught there for about three decades.

Though all artists use synthetic colours, Wangdus stresses, “The Government should make available the traditional colours to us.” Traditionally, vermillion (tsal) was brought from Nubra, lime from Zangskar, yellow (gserpo) from Khalatste and brown (mugpo) from Markha. Green (jung-khu) was extracted from copper oxidation, and red lead was made from vermillion itself. Earlier, a master painter would go with a lama to a secret place to invoke a particular deity by reciting a mantra for days together. At the end of this ritualistic confinement, an astrologer would choose a day to commence the painting. The cloth used for thanka was called Kashika (cloth from Kashi).

Wangdus doesn’t follow the old tradition in toto but takes about one to three months to finish a thanka. “The bigger it is, the more intricate its work. Though it is time consuming, the happiness is a lot more than pursuing any other art, because it shows your devotion to God,” he says. The same reason he chose to paint the walls of Photang monastery rather than accept the Government’s recent invitation to go to the U.S. for a solo show of his works.

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