Sacred vs SoldThe fact that traditional art forms are surviving, and experiencing an influx of artists to boot, means that these art forms are negotiating our globalised world’s economic structures and rules
When I spoke to Michael Gordon, the artist and Fulbright researcher, who is responsible for putting together the concept and execution of a very intriguing exhibition at the Siddhartha Gallery, what struck me most was his comment (which I am paraphrasing and hopefully not incorrectly) that to his mind ‘thangka’ in a way acted as a microcosm for Nepal’s geopolitics. Digging deeper I realised that what he meant, among other things, was perhaps that Nepal continues to be a surrogate space for Tibet, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, to the Western mind. This explains why there is less awareness of the ‘paubha’ outside Nepal. And the fact that most of the best ‘thangka’ produced here is actually collected by collectors in China, brings in another geopolitical twist since works produced in Tibet would surely never find space on Chinese walls.
Both the art forms, of the primary ‘paubha’ indigenous to Kathmandu Valley and its later evolved form of the ‘thangka’ in Tibet, were initially driven by religion and spirituality. They served the dual function of being a meditative practice in itself for an artist practitioner, as well as an artefact or ‘ritual object’ necessary for spiritual practice. The obvious patrons were everyday individuals keen on religious practice, monks, monasteries, and of course the royalty and aristocracy. Each piece took hours, sometimes hundreds of hours, to make and were therefore expensive. Plus it required years and years of hands on training and practice along with years of study in Buddhist philosophy and rituals. The world was a quieter place then, and time moved much slower than it does today. The market was limited. And the economy ran on a different mechanism, where everyone had a given, traditional place.
It is a different, faster world now. The market mechanism works differently. There is nothing ‘given’ in terms of one’s place in society or within the economy. And one does not need to be a spiritual practitioner to be able to appreciate or own a ‘paubha’ or ‘thangka’. The market for these art forms have boomed globally, especially for the ‘thangka’, thanks to Tibetan Buddhism’s incursions into the Western hemisphere since the 1960s. Restricting its production only to those who were traditionally allowed to do so, would throw the mechanism of a capital driven economy awry. History required that the making of it be democratised, market demands required that more of it was created faster, cheaper and in great numbers. And so what was once a sacred tradition practiced by an initiated few, became a means of livelihood for many across caste, class and gender barriers.
And so we are at a quandary today. On one hand we prefer to advocate the cause of authenticity against vulgarisation. Of protecting a sacred tradition restricted to a select few. In which case we will be speaking against democratisation of a tradition that now allows hundreds to feed their families and support their communities. Michael Gordon makes a good case for this with the selection of artists he has chosen to showcase in ‘Sacred Survival’. While the famed Lok Chitrakar and Tenzin Norbu come from families, who have been traditionally artists for generations, the remaining five have had to break multiple glass ceilings—constituted by tradition, caste, religion, gender and formal education—to arrive at successful careers. For some, like Karam Rinchhen Gurung or Lok Chitrakar, the practice remains centred on ‘dharma’ or a spiritual quest. For others, like Bhim Thapa, it is means to support hundreds of families with food, clothing and shelter in earthquake devastated Sindhupalchowk. For Tualaram Lama, it is about encouraging artistic and economic solidarity within the Tamang community. For Tenzin Norbu, it is about promoting education, supporting schools, encouraging sustainable development in remote Dolpo. For Muna Moktan and Sonam Dolma, it is about breaking gender barriers within a patriarchal system and earning a living in a male dominated field; it is also about empowering the next generation of women.
Gordon has shown specimen artworks by these artists on the ground floor of the Siddhartha Art Gallery. Most of them are unfinished, in process and cover a wide stylistic range between Norbu’s extraordinary conflation of Western imagery with the ‘thangka’ style and Lok Chitrakar’s exquisite ‘paubha’ iconography. But what makes the show even more interesting are the four blank canvases upstairs, stretched on to frames, that act as screens for projecting seven visual narratives catching the artists at work on the pieces. Each projection is accompanied by an audio interview that captures their life story and painting paraphernalia set out on the floor. The focus is very much on the process involved, on the individual lives lived, on their daily struggles; on how they negotiate tradition and make it relevant today.
The catalogue text prepared by Gordon is detailed and comprehensive enough to require no further explanation for the endeavour. As Sujan Chitrakar succinctly pointed out in his inaugural speech, we are now at a point in history where we need to take stock of the processes involved, of their place within the economy and not treat these art forms as if they are practiced within a tradition insulated from the market. But we must also be wary of being reduced to the market’s demands.
That is indeed a difficult ropewalking act to pursue. The fact that these traditional art forms are surviving, and experiencing an influx of artists to boot, who chose it as a viable means of livelihood, means that these art forms are negotiating our globalised world’s economic structures and rules. It is important that we learn to focus on that for it will surely give us insights into processes that have escaped us till now. But more importantly, it may even show us the route we must take to make the world a more equitable place.
Sometime ago, I remember writing in this column a piece that I find relevant today and so am quoting it again: ‘Oikos is an ancient Greek word that has evolved into the “eco” of both economics and ecology. It is a fact that though the two words share the same prefix, they are somewhat antithetical to each other in terms of ethics. In terms of the art world, they are not the best of friends either...That economics drives the production of art globally today is a fact we cannot bypass or ignore. As responsible inhabitants of Earth in the 21st century we can only try and rescue it from the absolute grasp of market mechanisms and try and restore it to ecology to some extent.’
Well done Michael Gordon! May we continue to witness more such queries in the coming years.