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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Buddhists, Reconstructing Sacred Tibetan Murals, Wield Their Brushes in Nepal


Buddhists, Reconstructing Sacred Tibetan Murals, Wield Their Brushes in Nepal

Gilles Sabrie for The New York Times
A local woman worked on a historic mural at Thubchen Monastery in Lo Mannthang, Nepal
LO MANTHANG, Nepal — Dozens of painters sat atop scaffolding that soared toward the roof of an ancient monastery. With a swipe of their brushes, colors appeared that gave life to the Buddha. Gold for the skin. Black for the eyes. Orange for the robes.
They worked by dim portable electric lights. Dusty statues of Tibetan Buddhist deities gazed on. From openings in the roof, a few shafts of sunlight fell through the 35 wooden pillars in the main chamber of the enormous Thubchen Monastery, the same edifice that had awed Michel Peissel, the explorer of Tibet, when he visited a half-century ago.
“In Nepal, no one knows how to do this, so we have to learn,” said Tashi Gurung, 34, a painter participating in what is one of the most ambitious Tibetan art projects in the Himalayas.
Financed by the American Himalayan Foundation, the project is aimed at restoring to a vibrant state the artwork of two of the three main monasteries and temples in Lo Manthang, the walled capital of the once-forbidden kingdom of Mustang. Bordering Tibet in the remote trans-Himalayan desert, Mustang is an important enclave of Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Tibetan leaders, including the Dalai Lama, say their culture is under assault in the vast Tibetan regions ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, which occupied central Tibet in 1951. That, along with the encroachment of modernity, means that the act of preserving or reviving Tibetan art is arguably more important than at any time since China’s devastating Cultural Revolution.
The project in Lo Manthang has stirred debate. Some scholars of Tibetan art assert that the painters in Lo Manthang are altering important historical murals and jeopardizing scholarship by painting new images atop sections of walls where the original images have been destroyed. Those involved in the project argue that residents want complete artwork in their houses of worship.
The project’s director is Luigi Fieni, 39, an Italian who first came to work here after graduating from an art conservation program in Rome. Mr. Fieni and other Westerners have trained local residents to work on the art, creating a 35-member team that includes 20 women and one monk (though there was initial reluctance from local men to tolerate the women’s participation).
There are three major religious buildings in Lo Manthang. Two of them are monasteries, and one is a temple traditionally used for ceremonies by the royal family. Their thick, red walls rise among alleyways that wind past whitewashed mud-brick homes. An 80-year-old king and his family reside in a palace in the town center. The town was founded in the 14th century, and the oldest religious buildings date to the 15th century.
Much of the Tibetan art here reflects a Newari influence, which comes from the Katmandu Valley. Centuries ago, Newari artisans were welcomed by some Tibetan rulers, especially those who followed the Sakya branch of Tibetan Buddhism, which is common throughout Mustang.
The art project began in 1999 with the cleaning of murals in Thubchen Monastery, after an initial round of architectural reconstruction. Then the painters moved on to Jampa Temple, where the dark main chamber has a towering statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha.
The walls on the first floor are adorned with remarkably detailed mandalas, a form of geometric art considered a representation of the cosmos. Here, Mr. Fieni decided to deviate from the initial approach taken at Thubchen. He wanted his team, rather than do purely restoration, to paint sections of the walls where an original mural had disappeared or been destroyed.
The painters would then try to recreate those pictures based on tradition and on what had been painted elsewhere in the chamber. Mr. Fieni also consulted with monks to ask what pictures they wanted on the walls. In 2010, the team returned to Thubchen to adopt the new approach and paint large sections.
“Call this painting, not restoration or conservation,” Mr. Fieni said. He added that this method helped restore the living nature of the artwork, as opposed to what he called the Western “colonialism” approach of preserving the old above all else.
“When we arrived, we started working following the Westerners’ theories of conservation,” Mr. Fieni said. “Then, while working and living within the community, I changed my point of view, and I decided to follow the needs of the culture I was working for. So I decided to start reconstructing the missing areas.”
Once taught how to paint, local residents decide how they want to decorate the monasteries, Mr. Fieni said.
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