Gods Made Color: The Life and Art of Tseten Dorjee

(A feature piece I did for this past Sunday’s edition of NOW.)

“It never tires me, ” Tseten Dorjee, master thanka painter, says with a grin. “I’ve been painting for almost forty years, I should get bored. I’m always surprised that I don’t.”

Dorjee’s house is that wonderful mix of traditional atmosphere and modern amenities, and I can see why he would feel that way. On my way in I pass the room where his students sleep, and even from the doorway I could hear the buzz and purr of laptops, cellphones plugged in to charge, and an Xbox 360 game console. But the comfortable sitting room where we chat is filled with dozens of little paint bottles and a half finished canvas in peaceful pastels. A box of Indian sweets sits open on the table, and a small, ancient looking radio plays softly, tuned to a station from Tibet. When our tea comes Dorjee gets up and turns the radio off.

“It is nice to hear our own language, sometimes,” he says a little wistfully.

Born in India just after the exile, Tseten Dorjee grew up in Darjeeling trading hand-drawn greeting cards for sweets. When he was fourteen his father noticed his early talent in art and drawing and took Dorjee to train in thanka painting with a famous monk who worked for one of the Dalai Lama’s teachers. He doesn’t come out and say it, but I get the sense that Dorjee was something of a prodigy at thanka painting. Most thanka students spend three years making pencil sketches of the myriad Tibetan deities and demons before moving on to using paints, but Dorjee did it in half that.

Fifty years old now, Dorjee is one of the Northeast’s most talented thanka artists. Over the course of his career he has practiced, taught and spoken on the ancient Tibetan Buddhist art style in North and South India, Germany, and America, and has taken students from all over the world — North America, Europe, Tibet, Bhutan — into his home. He has worked for Sikkim’s royal family and helped Germany’s Dagyab Rimpoche produce a book on thanka. Not that it has always been so easy: it is tough for any artist starting out, even one of Dorjee’s caliber, and in 1993 Gorkhaland violence forced him to flee to Sikkim from his home in Darjeeling. He eventually set up a shop in MG Marg which was a staple of the market until he moved his practice to his home in Rongyek just four months ago.

What is thanka painting? Dorjee stresses that it isn’t just an art style; the work, the product, and the way the paintings are used are all immensely spiritual. Painting a thanka is “like meditation” and takes weeks or months of careful, intensely detailed labor, first penciling in the featured deity, then the background, then painting first the background, then the deity, finishing with the eyes. When a piece is finished, it must be inscribed on the back with mantra symbols to prevent evil spirits from using the painting for malicious ends, and it must be consecrated by a rimpoche. These precautions are necessary because a thanka isn’t just a beautiful picture, but is believed to literally contain the deity depicted. Unlike normal art, which only benefits those who view it, by bringing a god into our plane a thanka is thought to benefit all sentient beings.

Most of Tseten Dorjee’s practice is painting thankas for monasteries and personal shrines, but a good chunk also comes from painting thankas on the occasion of a person’s death. In Tibetan Buddhism each person is assigned a specific deity at birth to guide them towards enlightenment. The identity of this deity is found astrologically by an individual’s birthday, but can also be determined by the date and time of their death. A person’s god helps them move closer to the non-suffering world in the afterlife, and a properly constructed thanka painting helps the dead recognize their assigned deity from amongst the many enlightened ones offering sometimes imperfect help.

When a Buddhist dies a thanka painting must be commissioned and completed within forty-nine days. After consecration the painting is brought to the family’s shrine and should be prayed to and purified with incense regularly from then on. When Dorjee was commissioned by the Sikkim royal family to do a thanka after the death of their daughter, it took them nineteen days to decide on a design, and they chose one so elaborate that it would take most thanka painters two and a half months to complete. Dorjee worked day and night and completed the painting in the remaining thirty days. The royal family was so impressed that they began to hire him regularly.

According to Dorjee there are two kinds of thanka painting now: a traditional form that paints pieces to be meditated over in monasteries or used in funeral rituals to guide the dead through the afterlife, and a commercial form sold in shops as simple decoration. Dorjee is quick to mention that he doesn’t have anything against commercial painters, but he says that too often they miss certain details. To a traditional practitioner like Dorjee, these details are everything.

The traditional form follows an ancient script and measurements, visualized long ago by meditating lamas. A thanka painting intends to put Buddhist scriptures, prayers and stories into a visual form, just as chanting monks transform these same scriptures into voice and sound. Leaving out minute details of the painting is like skipping a chapter of the story or a verse of the prayer.

Not that Dorjee claims to always get it completely right. “People always ask, ‘when do you get perfect in thanka painting?’” he laughs. “I asked my teacher the same thing. He said that you will never be perfect at Thanka painting, but you will be perfect at everything when you are enlightened.” According to Dorjee a thanka by an enlightened painter should be so powerful that the pictures move and speak.

Dorjee takes the religious aspects of his art very seriously, and when he takes students he mixes his rather informal teaching with lessons in Buddhism. But thanka painting is also still his business and his livelihood. A single painting can cost anywhere from Rs. 5000 to Rs. 2 lakhs, depending on the intricacy of the design (and therefore man-hours required) and the quality of the materials. For cheaper commissions Dorjee uses modern acrylic paints, but for more expensive works (often ordered by Westerners) he uses traditional paints from colored rocks brought from Tibet, Bhutan and all parts of India that take days or weeks of being ground by hand with a mortar and pestle to produce the proper powder. Some paintings even use precious metals like gold, refined to a pure form elsewhere in India with secret techniques and costing as much as Rs. 2500 per gram.

Even on the less elaborate commissions there are some things Dorjee refuses to skimp on. He spends hours hand stitching the cotton canvas into its wooden frame, even though the painting is eventually cut out of the canvas and hand stitching provides no noticeable advantage over much faster machine stitching.

“If you change the method of thanka painting, your work may be a masterpiece, but it will not be a thanka painting,” Dorjee says. “Thanka isn’t art, but a deity itself. We are not painters but devotees.”

With that sort of attitude it is easier to understand how Tseten Dorjee has practiced his craft for thirty-six years without getting bored, and is still going strong. He is a humble man, and jovial, and his work and students obviously bring him much joy. But he says few of his students go on to make a life out of thanka painting, and economic pressures drive younger painters to less traditional methods and materials. Dorjee has held the torch of traditional thanka painting as a perfected craft for decades now. When he is gone, will anyone be left to take it up?

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2 responses to “Gods Made Color: The Life and Art of Tseten Dorjee

  1. VERY, VERY interesting.

  2. I loved it. Do you have any pictures to go with it? Are you going to get a commercial one for you home?

    Last night in the emergency room, I had my first Buddhist death. The family first removed all of the medical equipment themselves, then they knelt around the bed in and did lots of spoken liturgy. I know that it was liturgy of some kind even though it was in Vietnamese because it was obvious that it wasn’t conversation. Finally, they had brought a small player that was to stay with the body which they placed next to her head and they explained that it would play prayers continually for her that will “guide her spirit to heaven.” It was a privilege to witness even from the sideline this family.

    Peace to us all, MOMOXOXO

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