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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Tenzin Rigdol's mandala
Particles of prayers

by Swapna Vora

June 11, 2008

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)


The Dalai Lama keeps seeking peace often, seemingly, in vain. At The Missing Peace exhibition at the Rubin Museum in New York, many artists produced their reactions to Tibet and its recent history. At the end, Tenzin Rigdol created a mandala in colored sand. This Tibetan artist's interpretation was contemporary, an amazing picture in fine, multi-colored sand produced after 10 days of neck-breaking devotion. After completion, it was slowly and vigorously swept away by traditional Tibetan dancers, reminding us of the evanescence of our own lives, of all our actions. The dancers went four steps forward and two back, reminding us that our stories too are written on shifting sand. Maybe China too will one day understand that any conquest is ephemeral and rife with grave, karmic implications.

Rangoli, the art of making pictures with colored sand, is a form of painted prayers. One can see its simple or elaborate patterns in peacock colors or in stark, white rice powder on Indian doorsteps. Rigdol's interpretation is a philosophical rangoli.


Mandala means 'circle'. The circle symbolizes spirit and the square denotes matter, where we now find ourselves. A mandala with its stylized cosmos, deities and humans is, like most art from the Indian subcontinent, ultimately an attempt to know the self, ourselves. Creating a mandala is slow, loving work depicting desired goals like peace and reaching something one really yearns for, elevated states of bliss and consciousness. Often the central figure is Manjushree, the Bodhisattva.

Here Rigdol illustrated something he did not want and drew a gun in the center representing the insane, unnecessary violence which infects our world. "I hope that is what a gun looks like", he said. "I have never held one," as he carried out his response to terror. Around it, he gently rolled out the traditional Buddhist colors of red, green, yellow, white and deep blue. Sadly he added, he had nothing against anyone but lamented that China may get many medals at the Beijing Olympics Games, especially a gold medal for violating human rights. Perhaps he remembers that India gave refuge to fleeing Tibetans when the world turned its back and refused to listen. Tibetans continue to live in India, most have been born there and know no other home. India has requested them to avoid angering China, after China attacked India for giving refuge to the young Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers. Many Indian soldiers died on the north eastern border in that attack. Do young Tibetans or Indians know this? Perhaps Rigdol will create this memory as a mandala or may be this history too will trickle like sand in an hourglass and vanish. Rigdol says his paintings are 'influenced by interpretations not just from Tibet, but from many ancient traditions'. He says the philosophical influences of Buddha, Krishna, Christ, Chuang Tsu, Lao Tse, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Derrida, and Foucault linger alongside his own hopes. His paintings capture our endless human conflicts for his art is political. Tibet's history with China holds major memories as he reflects on our values as fellow human neighbors. He sees Tibet as a metaphor for the loss of civilization everywhere, where might has become right. For him, Tibet's current history represents a loss of innocence, a failure of civilization. One recalls the young Dalai Lama's urgent pleas for help to the British queen and to Harry Truman when Tibet was attacked by China. Those cries received no response. India gave refuge and most Tibetans have now grown up in the hot streets and towns of India. 'I am a Tibetan who has never seen Tibet', reads one refugee's poem.

Rigdol says: "The issue of Tibet puts the world to a unique test on ethics; it is a test of our time on whether the nonviolent path is still a revered mode of practice for achieving a peaceful resolution." His current project, Fusion art, focuses on human struggles. All Indian religions see conflict with our fellow humans as a failure to understand our oneness. He explains, "The elements in my paintings don't compromise or co-exist with one another; rather, they fuse to emphasize the aestheticism of oneness." He declares that his new book titled, 'R —The Frozen Ink', is 'a tribute to refugees everywhere'. 

Seeing the neat lines and smoothly poured sand, a four year old girl asked, "How is your work so perfect?" Tenzin Rigdol replied gently, "It's your perfect eyes that see this as perfect." A really small, blond boy saw the colorful Tibetans dance across his work and asked, concerned, "Don't you mind if it is destroyed?" Rigdol replied, "No, not destroyed. Just in another form." However the mandala grew more and more beautiful as dancers moved over it. Finally, but not surprisingly, it resembled what our earth looks like when viewed from outer space, a blue sphere filled with humanity's colors, our hills, our beloved valleys and our cherished rivers. Rigdol said people carry so much with them, their problems, their property, "I want to show them that there's beauty in letting go." He said his mandala was not traditional for normally monks work on a raised platform, never on the floor. He continued that the cause was bigger than just Tibet. "If we let one country wipe out another's culture, what's to stop it from happening again and again?" People say wait, and we always wait for somebody else to change. And we wait. This was a mandala like no other. The sand was from Nepal and went to the Rubin's housekeeping staff for disposal, not to some sacred spot or to be scattered to the wind. Rigdol's back hurt from days of pouring the sand as he said, " Please take this peace with you, where you go."


Biography: Tenzing Rigdol, born in Kathmandu, Nepal in 1982, studied in Nepal and India until 1999. At 12, he designed carpets for major companies. In 2001, he studied Tibetan Sand Painting, Butter Sculpture and Buddhism in Nepal. At the Shakar Choten Monastery, he studied with the great master, Lama Thupten Nygudrup. Next he earned a diploma in Tibetan Traditional Painting from the Tibet Tangkha Art School under the Venerable Phenpo Tenzin Dhargay and Tenzin Gawa, both ninth generation Tibetan Tangkha painters. (Their ancestors' murals are still inside Lhasa's Potala Palace.) In 2005, he graduated with degrees in Painting, Drawing and Art History from the University of Colorado, Denver. When Communist China claimed Tibet, Rigdol's Tibet born mother, (Dolma Tsering) and father, (Norbu Wangdu) fled to India. Both were very young then. Today they now live in New York.

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