An art of excellence
Synopsis: Paubha art once dwelling in the shadow of thangka paintings, is now finding its own niche market among foreigners.

By Jewel Zhu

Paubha is a traditional religious painting that dates back to the 11th century. It features mostly Buddhist subjects, and a few Hindu deities as well, telling a range of stories for religious merit. However, paubhas aren’t as well-known to the general public as thangkas which everyone seems to be familiar with. But lately paubhas are much in demand in mainland China. Paubha is Newari art painted by Newars and Thangka is Tibetan although they are more often painted by people from different Nepali ethnic groups, predominantly by the Tamang people. 


The Licchavi princess Bhrikuti Devi was married off to Songtsen Gampo, the founder and king of the Tibetan Empire. In keeping with the dowry system, Bhrikuti needed to bring gifts, money and property for Songtsen Gampo when she went over to marry him. As a devout Buddhist, Bhrikuti brought statues of goddess Tara, paubha paintings of deities made by Newari painters and other sacred images, which contributed to the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. And this is also how Paubha paintings went from Kathmandu Valley to Tibet in their early days. 

An art form that originated in Kathmandu valley, Paubha is an artistic legacy that is gaining ground rapidly and fetches good prices. It is highly regarded for its religious meaning and artistic value that demands careful preservation, while at the same time changes are also being incorporated for Paubha’s further development with regard to what is to be painted. 
More and more colors are now at their disposal and artists are using more than just stone colors that were traditionally used in the past. Yellow, green, blue, pink, and many other bright colors are used, representing different elements—for example, green stands for nature while yellow represents the earth. 


Traditionally, Paubha was painted by the Chitrakar caste according to Raj Prakash Tuladhar, a veteran Newari painter. “But over time, Newars from other castes also started painting paubhas. Anyone interested in Paubha painting can learn as long as he or she has a thorough understanding of Buddhism,” says Tuladhar.
He was exposed to Buddhism since birth, surrounded by statues of deities, paubhas and observed all kinds of rituals in a typical Newari family. “It’s not like we are taught by books. We learn from our family and the society,” Tuladhar adds.


When he was a kid, he enjoyed celebrating the festivals and doing rituals, and enjoyed the atmosphere of happiness and hopefulness. During the festivals, the adults engaged in rituals explaining everything to the children. Thus, the younger generation learns more about Buddhism, digging deeper into it day by day.
“We enjoyed it (religious rituals and festivals) as kids. And as we grow up, it became part of our lifestyle,” Jenisha, Raj Prakash’s niece informs. Generation after generation, it’s a circle of life. August is a holy month for Newar Buddhists as it corresponds to the month of Gunla, the tenth month in the Nepal Sambat lunar calendar. Among a great number of festivals in August, an annual exhibition of Paubhas and statues of Dipankar Buddha is held during this month in sacred courtyards around Kathmandu Valley. Devotees view the displays while a local communal musical band leads them to the courtyards and on to Swoyambhu. This year it fell on 16th August. 


Apart from preservation and appreciation by society, the value of Paubha has been discovered globally and more importance is being attached. The fourth China International Thangka Art Festival was held in Lhasa last year. Along with seven other artists, Tuladhar attended the festival and was the only one representing Paubha artists at the festival, in addition to showcasing his works. Tuladhar also talked about Paubha’s history, progress and expectations of the future in his speech.


In the painting named Yogini, which was selected for the Thangka Art Festival, it’s not just about showing the written story, and also adding a painter’s creativity. Tuladhar depicts the story where the goddess Bajrayogini presents herself to praise Guru Padmasambhava’s dedication to gain knowledge.

 

Apart from Tuladhar, a great exponent of paubha art is Samundraman Shrestha whose works lean heavily towards fine art with intricate details of jewelry and clothing. His detail astounded art lovers at his exhibition at the Art Council Gallery. This is quite different from the works of other paubha painters. He also enjoys good patronage as his art is in great demand.
Guru Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rimpoche in Tibet, came to Kathmandu for ChakrasamvaraTantra, referring to rituals and meditations. Since he was a foreigner, he was not allowed to gain knowledge about it and only after he married a girl of the Shakya clan from Patan was he allowed access.


Based on this specific story, no elements mentioned in it are missing. Depicted are the goddess Bajrayogini, her temple and the deity is shown stepping on Guru Padmasambhav, and the symbol of education or knowledge are placed ingeniously in an X-shaped composition. The painting is rich but not crowded. Except for the object’s local color, Tuladhar has also enriched the artistic expression by adding an illuminant and ambient color. The work won the gold award atthe Craftwork Exhibition of China in 2017 in Hangzhou.


Always interested in Buddhism and Paubha painting, Tuladhar started his career 20 years ago, gaining a reputation with his great understanding of Buddhism and his creativity in his art. His works are now in the collection of the RubinMuseum of Art in New York City, a museum focusing on Himalayan arts, and various museums and art galleries in Britain, China, Japan, and other counties. 
“Due to the heightened exposure, his works have become emblematic of Kathmandu’s indigenous art in the Chinese market,” reported Kathmandu Post. Leaving honors behind, Tuladhar still enjoys learning more about Buddhism and Paubha as well. Sitting in his small studio, surrounded by sacred statues of deities, he takes time to think and immerses himself in creating a Paubha. From Kathmandu Valley to Tibet, and back to Kathmandu, Paubha circles and grows, thriving and getting more popular all the time.