Tenzin Nurbu Lama
I was born in Bantsang, a village in Dolpo, a remote district situated
in the snowy landscape of western Nepal. My village lies at 4,500 meters
and is known for its harsh climate. Dolpo is enveloped by snow for eight
months of the year and its dramatic mountain landscapes are what I try
to capture in my art.
Many of the people of Dolpo are nomadic depending much on raising
yak and trading, as farming can only be done in the brief summer season.
The staple diet of the region is tsampa (roasted barley flour), butter,
tea and meat.
Through five generations my family has taken care of and resided in
Dralung Monastery – the main monastery in Bantsang and one of
the oldest in the region. In this period of time, my family has passed
along the traditional style of art known as ‘thangka painting’.
From a very young age I watched my father and other relatives paint.
In Dolpo, paper and pen are scarce so I would often draw on the sand
and the snow. Slowly, I was trained to draw on wooden boards coated
with oil and sand using a curved bamboo pen. This is the traditional
style of training thangka painters in Dolpo. Many of my earlier drawings
can still be found in the homes of my relatives in Dolpo. While I was
also trained in sculpture and mask making, my favourite was painting
For inspiration, I draw on my family, historical books, legends and
memories of Dolpo including visions and dreams. I strive to give each
painting movement and expression. While the painting is still, within
it I try to capture movement and give life to the figures. Also, I integrate
the culture and tradition of Dolpo into my paintings. Even the smallest
details such as body postures and clothing reflect pieces of my culture
and my home.
In 1991, I met Eric Valli. He had come to the monastery in which my
family lived. He had come to do research and take photographs. At first
it was surprising to meet a Westerner. I had never before seen a person
with yellow hair and blue eyes. Eric and I travelled together and became
very close. With his help, my art has been featured in photography books
and I have had the opportunity to travel to France. In 1994, I got the
chance to exhibit my paintings with sponsorship through the National
Geographic Society. In 1998 my work was featured in ‘Himalaya’,
a film about Dolpo, directed by Eric Valli. I have contributed drawings
to a number of books and several movies including a children’s
book based on the movie. ‘Himalaya’. In 2001, at the invitation
of two friends, Ken Bauer and Sienna Craig, I was invited to America
to teach thangka painting for two months at Cornell University’s
Johnson Art Museum in Ithaca, New York.
My future aim and hope is to help towards the development of Dolpo
and its people while also preserving our cultural heritage and traditional
styles of art. Since Dolpo is situated at such a high altitude and remotely
located, livelihood is very difficult. Our villages are quite cut off
from the modern world with the lack of vehicular roads. This makes it
very difficult for the families of Dolpo. Most of the families in Dolpo
have five or more kids. In my village area there are nearly 500 children.
However, there was no school and no opportunity for learning within
our village. Many of the students either went to the monasteries or
migrated elsewhere for their education. One of my dreams is to help
develop an education center in Dolpo that will also include vocational
curricula such as our local arts (thangka painting). Trying to bridge
modern education with a sense of preservation and respect to local culture
and tradition is one goal of our school. With help of a French woman
named Ann Le long, we have begun to open this school in my village concentrating
on handicrafts, literature, and other important traditional subjects.