Some travelers visit Bhutan to trek. Others to marvel at monasteries. But another reason to visit the world’s only Buddhist Kingdom is to appreciate its art.
“It’s not yet finished,” says a boy dressed in a red-and-blue plaid goh (a traditional robe dress) as he sculpts the head of a clay god sitting in the lotus position. On the glass shelf next to him are the finished pieces: clay sculptures of deities in various poses. In the adjacent room, girls in cobalt blue kiras (a traditional ankle-length dress) weave fabrics in purples, reds, oranges, and greens on back-strap looms.
I am in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum—referred to locally as “the Painting School”—observing students at work. “In Bhutan, traditional art forms have a very strong foothold. While there is a lack of a robust art market here, we are striving towards creating pieces that can be exhibited worldwide,” explains Kama Wangdi, an artist and the founder of Volunteer Artists’ Studio Thimphu, a non-profit organization and gallery.
At the Painting School, teenage pupils receive instruction on Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts—from clay work to weaving—handed down through an apprenticeship system dating back to the 17th century. After one to six years in school, they are well on their way to producing statues for the country’s temples and dzongs (fortress temples), and fabrics for the Textile Museum as well as for everyday use.
I feel sleepy listening to the rhythmic thumping of the heddle bars and the clinking of the looms. I could stay here the whole day. But there is more to see, so I wander into another room, where a group of four students are painting thangkas (religious pictures) on canvas stretched and fastened to a wooden frame. They work intently, with such concentration that no one looks up when I hover at their shoulders. The young artists are working on a round mandala thangka in striking hues of marigold, green, brick, and royal blue. Geometrical patterns of squares and circles collide on canvas and form a surprisingly coherent whole, with dragons and prayer wheels decorating the spaces in between. A thangka is religious in nature. And this one is no different: the mandala represents eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism and aids concentration and meditation.
I marvel at the intricacy of the paintings. The young artist follows a set of iconography rules, prescribing the exact proportions and elements of each work. Firmly rooted in Buddhism, Bhutan’s art is governed by two rules: it has to be anonymous and it has to be religious. The artist’s role is not to produce a work of art but a work of faith.
From a balcony, I notice a school wall inscribed in a bold red font with a Buddhist mantra I have not seen before: “Be Somebody.” Then underneath in black: “Be useful to yourself. Be useful to parents. Be useful to community. Be useful to Tsa-Wa-Sun” (King-country-people).
On my way out, I hold on to the handcarved railings and for a moment, I’m transfixed. I examine the handiwork: the curves of the carvings and the meticulous painting work in deep yellow, green, and red. “Surely, this is a work of art,” I say to my guide, Jatsho, who nods his head while probably thinking I’ve lost my mind.
I learn from one of the tutors at the Painting School that not all Bhutanese art is a dramatization of Buddha’s teachings or purely functional. In recent decades, there has been a steady stream of contemporary art galleries and organizations opening in Thimphu that promote visual art that melds the old and new worlds.
I visit the Volunteer Artists’ Studio Thimphu—popularly known as VAST—a non-profit that nurtures and promotes a new generation of young Bhutanese artists. It was founded in 1998 by a group of classically trained artists keen on using traditional techniques to produce contemporary work.
I head to Alaya, VAST’s gallery, and find myself in a space that is minimalist and modern: whitewashed walls, cream marble floors, and two wooden pews for visitors to sit. The walls are strewn with eclectic artwork: a portrait of the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, against a backdrop of bright red; a canvas wrapped in colorful yarn with a tsechu mask set in the middle; and a painting of a cherry blossom tree with silk appliqué forming the branches and flowers. Traditional Bhutanese artistry is present here, one which thoughtfully engages with the modern without compromising the nation’s collective values.
I browse through the unframed art scattered across Alaya. “The gallery is not quite finished,” explains the receptionist. I nod. Indeed, it is a space in transition, in the midst of things, much like Bhutanese contemporary art. And that, I’d argue, is its beauty.
Traditional Bhutanese art has its own brand of splendor. The next day, when I visit the Trashi Chhoe Dzong (a Buddhist monastery and fortress in Thimphu) and step into the courtyard, I see everything I saw at the painting school in context: thangka in the temple walls, large-scale sculptures in the courtyard, masterfully handpainted woodwork throughout the dzong. A group of three young monks garbed in crimson robes descend the temple steps. Silence. Then the shuffling of their feet and the whirring of the prayer wheels. Time stands still. And moves forward.