Master’s Work Station

SYNOPSIS:  About two people at my guesthouse, and about a famous tangkha school in Lhasa.

My guesthouse is owned by Peggy, a Chinese woman and Tsirin, a Tibetan man, in partnership. She is the boss, I was told by Pansang, one of the busboys.  I guess there are tax advantages to a business when it is Chinese owned, as well as advantages in terms of ownership, when one of the partners is local.  Pansang is a “live-in” young man who does everything that is needed, from carrying luggage to washing dishes, or fixing the broken pipes at any time of the day.  He came to the big city in search of a better life.  Even though he does not get any time off during the week, and only two weeks per year vacation, his work life here is not bad.  There is a lot of downtime, and he comes in contact with people from everywhere.  For generations, his family had been yak farmers up north; that life, he assured me, is much, much harder.  Through contact with foreigners, he picked up enough English to carry a conversation.  And since I travel alone, I am just the kind of person he hangs out with to talk.  This is still shoulder-season and business is slow, leaving him with plenty of free time.

Tsirin is the Tibetan partner of this team.  One afternoon, I headed up to the rooftop restaurant for a few photos and a thermos of tea — to drink a lot of fluids is paramount for good health around here — he and his brother-in-law were having some tea as well.  I complimented Tsirin on the beautiful, unique, and homogeneous design of his guesthouse.  He responded with a big smile:  He was the designer!  I was duly impressed.  When he found out that I was particularly interested in the traditional arts and that this was one of the subjects I was teaching, he offered to take me to a few tangkha studios where I could observe students at work. 

Pretty much on the spot we headed out and here is what I found out.  Students who want to learn traditional painting pick a master who will take them in.  That means the student will live in the master’s home, be fed and clothed, and embark on an apprenticeship that will typically last 12 years, before the student reaches the master level himself.  The profession is definitely male-dominated.  Only a handful of female students are around and most of them participate in the program for only a few years, leaving it before earning a “degree” or master title.  Masters with good reputations can take on a theoretically unlimited number of students.  Some have 5, 10, even 80 or in one case 400 students.  At that point, students will live in a dorm-like environment.

Everything the students produce is owned by the master and typically will be sold to cover food and living expenses.  Students, about midway into the program, will receive a monthly stipend but still, all of their works belongs to the master.  This master-apprentice system exists everywhere. 

The art of tangkha painting has seen a great upswing over the last 30 years.  As there were few masters left a few decades ago, and among those only a handful of good ones, now good masters abound and thousands of students follow, promising to be good masters as well.  Tangkha painting is considered a protected perishable national treasure by the Chinese government.

Thanks to Tsirin, I was able to visit the current master of all masters in Lhasa.  Unfortunately, he himself was out of town since one of his former masters had just died in Shigatse.  But his master student was filling in for him, showing me around.

This master, his name in English is roughly:  Norbu Sitar, is considered so valuable that the TAR government decided to give him an entire, three-floor building to accomplish three things:  First, house some of his masterpieces in a permanent exhibition that also doubles-up as a sales gallery and a demonstration site for the various steps, tools, and materials involved in tangkha making.  Second, to have a dormitory for his 80 students, and third:  provide him with classrooms, a library, and an office.  Several of his classrooms were in use (even though the teacher was absent!)  Students are sitting on low cushions, with their canvases dispensed on strings from the ceiling.  The beginners just copy simple designs with charcoal.  More advanced beginners outline charcoal designs following a grid pattern, quite similarly to what Egyptian artists would have done in tomb designs.  The most advanced students would work on entire tangkhas.  There is no production line involving several artists in finishing one tangkha, except for oversized ones.  Each artist is responsible for every step of the process from start to finish. 

The master’s  office was filled with photographs in which he was featured as a guest of honor at various government events.  One of the most incongruous pieces on display was a jet fighter plane which was given to him as a present by the Chinese government.  A bad joke?   

What strings are there attached to enjoying such enormous privileges, I asked?  I could not imagine that the government would shower a single artist with money and public recognition, unless something was given to them in return.  According to Tsirin, there were no strings attached.  In East Germany, privileged artists of this rank, and we had at least four of them, would in return have to follow a fine line between party ideas and personal vision.  Often they would have to produce “Socialist Realism” themes.  Something like that was awfully hard to do with tangkha paintings, as the iconography is entirely traditional and fixed.  I guess it is the glory the government earns, especially, when images of such a famous artists are displayed, as they have been many times, in Western countries, to high acclaim.  It makes the Chinese government look supportive of Tibetan religious culture, and in many ways, they currently are.

Traditional paintings such as these tangkhas have sharply risen in price and value over the last 30 years.  As one story goes, another great master wanted to buy back one of his early works which had been purchased by  somebody for 7000 RMB.  Today, 30 years later, it would cost the equivalence of 1 Million RMB.  16 years ago at an antique market in Beijing, I purchased two large-scale tangkhas for about $100 each.  Today, those would cost me about $1000 each. 

As a teacher coming from our money-driven US model of education, I just could not get over all the stuff I heard:  free education, free room and board, stipends for being in training, free choice of teacher, etc.  But unless I missed anything, that’s exactly how it goes here.  I was beyond grateful for the insight I gained today. 

Thanks, Tsirin!