Meet the master of thangka appliqué: Tsultrim Gyatso

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-By Susannah Mohan

The meeting of religion and art has always been a fertile ground for inspiration. In this spirit, an artist seeks to not only display his own earthly ideas, but to give body and form to the divine. In Tibetan art, there are three jewel traditions used to create the shapes of deities. These are the sacred arts of statue-making, thangka painting, and thangka appliqué. Here we will focus primarily on the art of thangka appliqué, with a hope to return to the others another day.

Generally, appliqué is a method of embroidery where the stitching is not applied directly onto the fabric, but is rather used to create individually embroidered pieces which are then assembled together to form an intricate patchwork design. It is difficult to trace the exact origins of the technique as cultures spanning the Silk Route have become so cross-pollinated over the centuries, but it is believed to have begun in Central Asia. The Tibetans, carefully adapting the traditions of larger cultures around them to suit their own purposes, acquired the technique of appliqué for use in their spiritual arts. Like statues and painted thangkas, the forms of deities in appliqué thangkas are taken directly from Buddhist scripture, with each measurement and colour specified.

To begin, the shape of the deity is created on paper using iconographic grids to ensure that each measurement is correct. The outline is then perforated with a needle, and rubbed with chalk powder to transfer the design onto the fabric. For each part of the deity, a different colour of silk brocade should be used. These pieces are then cut out, and a cord, created from silk-wrapped horsetail, is stitched around the border of each. The completed appliqué thangka is an assemblage of hundreds, or even thousands of individually embroidered
pieces, and the work of countless hours. The most spectacular examples this art can be seen in goku, the enormous embroidered appliqué thangkas that can span several stories high, and are displayed by monasteries on special prayer festivals.

At Norbulingka Institute in Dharamshala, we seek to preserve this sacred tradition of creating precious appliqué thangkas. We use only the finest materials, and each product is a labour of love and respect for our tradition. To gain a bit more insight into thangka appliqué, and the life of a Tibetan artist in exile, let us introduce you to our thangka appliqué master, Tsultrim Gyatso.

Tsultrim Gyatso was born in Ritoma, an isolated village in Amdo, Tibet in 1982. Like many families, Tsultrim worked both as a farmer and a nomad. Half of the family stayed in the village to tend their nearby fields, while he, along with his mother, spent the entire year in a
black tent made of yak hair, moving from pasture to pasture with their animals. After attending school for a few years, Tsultrim joined the monastery. In his first year as a monk, he devoted his time to memorising vast amounts of scripture, and later, he got the opportunity to become an apprentice to a master of thangka appliqué who taught him how to draw the correct proportions of each deity. “In those times, masters and students were
very close, almost like a father and son. I never asked for any payment for my work, but happily did whatever he asked,” Tsultrim states.

Because monasteries were centers of learning and usually had access to more information about the outside world, often the desire to travel to India lurked among monks. One day, one of Tsultrim’s friends asked him if he wanted to escape to India together. Ready for the
adventure, Tsultrim agreed. At the time, the master and his apprentices were working on a thangka of 1000-Armed Avalokitesvara. “I knew my master would never agree to
me going, so I had to lie to him. This was the only time I ever lied to my master. I still feel regret about this,” says Tsultrim.

When Tsultrim arrived in India in 1998, he decided that a monk’s life was not for him and that he had to find work. One of his uncles knew the thangka master at Norbulingka, as they had travelled in the same group to India. Norbulingka master Temba Chomphel gave Tsultrim an entrance exam of sorts: he had to draw Green Tara, a horse, and copy a portrait of the Dalai Lama. Recalling the moment, Tsultrim says, “My drawing of the Dalai Lama and the horse were pretty awful, but my Green Tara was perfect, as I had already learned to draw the deities from my master in Tibet.”

For six years Tsultrim and his classmates studied the various aspects of thangka painting. Tsultrim already knew the forms of the deities, but during his course at Norbulingka, he enjoyed studying the creation of pigments from mineral colour and the different techniques
of applying paint. “As you study,” he explains, “You begin to develop a refined sense of the arts and your eyes become very sharp. I remember when I was a child, any deity I saw
looked extremely beautiful, but as I studied more and more, certain pieces began to stand out as exquisite works of craftsmanship, and I could tell if the proportions of the deity
were correct in just a single glance.”

However, just before Tsultrim was about to complete his training, he developed a serious stomach illness, and had to undergo an operation. Tsultrim says, “That was a time of much difficulty in my life. I took leave from Norbulingka in order to recover, and during that period, my master also became sick and passed away. But the new master was very kind and appreciated my work. He told me not to worry and asked me to rejoin whenever I wanted to.” After several years, Tsultrim was well enough to rejoin Norbulingka, where he worked in the thangka painting section for about eight years.

Recently, he was made master of the thangka appliqué section, where he designs the blueprint of each thangka, and then supervises a team of expert tailors to ensure that
each part of the process is executed with precision. This is a monumental coordination effort. While painted thangkas are generally the work of one artist, appliqué thangkas are the combined effort of a whole team. Each person in the team has a specified job, and one error in any step of the process will reflect in the finished piece. There is some room for correction in painted thangkas, but in appliquéd thangkas, each piece must be flawless from the beginning. As per Tsultrim, “I enjoy working with appliqué thangkas especially because they constitute a very precious offering to the deities. Not only do we offer our positive intention in the creation process, but the materials themselves are very valuable and it is a joy to be able to glorify our religion in this way.”

About the future of the arts, Tsultrim relates, “Our ancestors took great care in preserving the purity of our traditions so that they are available to us today. It is our responsibility
to continue to pass on these art forms. If we work with sincerity, it is my belief that our beautiful culture will never disappear from this earth.”

For more information about Norbulingka, please visit: www.norbulingka.org.

Susannah Mohan was born and raised in the US. She attended Marlboro College, and graduated in 2010 with a BA in Writing and Religion. After graduation, she and her partner, who had grown up in Dharamshala, moved back to India. She has been happily working as the Communications Director at Norbulingka Institute for the past six years, and hopes to continue to do so for many years to come.

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