Walk into most Paubha or Thangka shops in Thamel or Durbar Marg, and you will probably hear a story about Tibetan monks grinding stone pigments high in the Himalaya. ‘Exotic’ spirituality has become as much of a brand as Iphones used to Instagram it, but in reality most of these paintings are produced by Tamangs, Gurungs, and Newars using inexpensive poster colors in warehouses around Boudha and Bhaktapur.
The painting factories may not seem ‘authentic’, but for the artist it puts food on the table. The demands of economic survival and the need for cultural preservation create new terms of authenticity for paubha and thangka.
Thangka and paubha were originally ritual objects for Vajrayana Buddhists. Many would like to separate what is sacred and what is sold, but this is a false distinction. The paintings always involved financial transactions.
However, as secular art collectors and tourists buy more of them, profit drives commodification.
Tularam Lama has been painting for over 25 years, yet he is still at the mercy of gallery dealers who do not share their profits with artists.
“We are compelled to sell cheap,” says Lama, who founded the Nepal Association of Thangka Artists. He still strives to maintain artistic integrity, teaching Tamang students to paint with inexpensive pigments as well as to understand the tradition’s cultural heritage.
Some painters use the market to build connections. Bhim Thapa, manager of Tara Thangka Center in Thamel, donates 25% of his sales to his community in Sindhupalchok. Prior to the earthquake, Thapa’s sales supported orphan children and women’s education. Today he focuses on basic necessities like blankets and food. “Thangka is not about perfect iconography, says Thapa, “to help is my dharma.”