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Tibet's thangkas find new fans across China

AFP  |  Beijing 

Her eyes riveted to the canvas, Wulan meticulously applies colour to an image of the Buddha, using pigments made of crushed pearls, turquoise and agate.

The 34-year-old is one of dozens of students at a school in Lhasa learning the medieval Tibetan art of "thangka" -- minutely detailed paintings depicting Buddhist deities or symbols, usually on cotton canvas or silk scrolls.

But she is not Tibetan. Ethnically Mongol, she moved 2,500 kilometres to embark on seven years of studies.

Beijing's forces took over in 1951 and the Communist government reviles the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, but the region's traditional religious art is now increasingly being embraced by outsiders -- including from China's Han ethnic majority -- as both buyers and producers.

"Thangkas are captivating a growing number of people," said Wulan. "Traditional cultures are more and more recognised in China, which wasn't always the case in the past, during the economic boom."

In their heyday centuries ago thangkas had patrons and practitioners in Nepal, Bhutan, and northern India, and in 2009, UNESCO added them to its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, calling them "an integral part of the artistic life of people" on the Tibetan plateau.

Now there are more than 100 apprentices -- including some Han Chinese, the country's overwhelming ethnic majority -- at Wulan's Danba Raodan school, who get free tuition in return for helping their teachers with their paintings. The students spend 10 hours every day learning how to trace figures in pencil, wield delicate paintbrushes and apply pigment to canvas.

The revival comes after a turbulent past -- the fled in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule and the ravages of Mao's Cultural Revolution laid waste religious tradition and iconography as zealous Red Guards -- including Tibetans -- sought to destroy the "Four Olds": customs, culture, habits and ideas.

"Beyond the destruction of artworks and monasteries ransacked, looted or burned, a lot of the expertise was lost. Many teachers disappeared or were in prison and could not train young people," said Amy Heller, a Tibetologist and art historian based in Switzerland.

"Even after the Cultural Revolution, it was difficult. The censorship had been such for 10 years that people were reluctant to bring out their thangkas, for fear of being denounced."

Many Tibetans accuse of wanting to dilute their culture and the says Tibet is the victim of "cultural genocide".

considers the Himalayan region an integral part of its territory -- a view disputed by the Tibetan government in exile and some scholars -- and retorts that it ended serfdom and brought development.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, October 17 2016. 19:43 IST