On most days the district of Dolpa is under a thick coat of snow. To the inhabitants their lives are lived in monocolor. Tenzin Norbu, however, grew up with colors, lots and lots of it. His family has been painting for five generations, probably even more. His earliest memory of painting was at the age of eight, and it was all because of his father.
As a child he was fascinated by the small corner of color his father created and spent hours admiring his father’s detailed work. In the mandalas that his father made, the focus only ever was on the deity. But for Tenzin, it was the corners of the mandala that held the allure, the corners where small scenes of daily life and subtle hints of stories were painted. And he knew that it was these corners that he wanted to draw and base his art on.
So he drew landscapes, scenes from the daily life of local residents and filled them with color. Although he grew up with heavy religious leanings his work always centered on life, in all its ordinariness.
But his illustrious career as an artist began with a visit from a French photographer (who remains to this day one of his closest friends) who had walked to the rural hills in Dolpa for nearly a month. He was Eric Valli, the celebrated photographer who worked for the National Geographic Magazine then and would later become a household name in Nepal.
“We could barely communicate but through an interpreter he expressed his appreciation for my work and asked me if I’d be willing to come to Kathmandu with him,” recalls Tenzin. He remembers being dubious about the stranger’s offer because to that day he had never seen anyone with fair hair, far less a foreigner. He was 20 years old then, and all he knew was painting and life up in the snow.
He declined the offer but Valli promised that he would be back in three months and asked Tenzin to reconsider his offer. Before leaving he commissioned Tenzin to paint a couple of landscapes capturing the daily lives of the people of Dolpa. “He didn’t even ask for colors, just requested that the essence be captured. He paid me Rs 500 and at that age there was nothing that could have made me happier,” says Tenzin.
Valli returned three months later. And he came bearing color pencils, illustrated French books, and sketchbooks. That was the first time Tenzin saw color pencils. Until then he had relied on the charred ends of wood splinters and naturally extracted colors to make his paintings. Tenzin admired Valli’s tenacity and his loyalty to his promise. He promptly agreed to come to Kathmandu. “I didn’t agree because of the opportunity that coming to Kathmandu would bring my way. I was really impressed by Valli. He seemed like a genuinely nice man with all the right motivations,” he says.
With barely a word of Nepali in his vocabulary, Tenzin walked from Dolpa to Kathmandu with Valli. The trip took them 41 days. All along the way, Valli took photos and Tenzin drew them.
In Kathmandu, they lived together from 1991 to 1997 and Tenzin visited his family once a year. During the time Valli compiled and published the book “Caravan Himalaya”. He had already authored the critically acclaimed “Honey Hunters of Nepal” previously. The book inspired the movie “Himalaya”, which got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Tenzin was one of the contributors to the film’s making. He drew thangka pieces and landscapes for the movie and helped draft the story (which was based on local events and also connected to his own life in Dolpa). The movie became a massive hit and Tenzin flew to France for the movie’s premiere. Upon return, he enjoyed an almost celebrity status and gave numerous interviews in the Nepali media.
Then followed a string of exhibitions for Tenzin, at some of the top exhibition halls in Nepal, Japan, Denmark and also in Dartmouth University (2017) and Cornell University. “I’ve always tried to capture daily lives and convey stories through my work and something about this seemed to appeal to people who had never seen our side of the world. There’s a different reverence for original art in Europe and America and I’m glad about that,” says Tenzin.
He got featured in Japan’s TV Asahi, represented Nepal in Denmark’s exhibition with a team of other Nepali artists, and opened a school in Dolpa. Today, he speaks French, Tibetan, English, Nepali and has illustrated various French children’ books. Tenzin has traveled all over the world, seen people from all cultures and backgrounds yet he prefers simple things – a day in the studio, a cup of nice coffee and good conversation. Although he has been exposed to various forms of art, he is still the young painter at heart, drawing the corners of a thangka painting.
To this day, he draws Tibetan myths and scenes from daily lives of people up in the hill. His works are mostly based in the nighttime and feature the moon. This, he says, is because growing up moonlight meant playing out in the night, the only time his village was illumined. “Moon is very dear to me. It’s in all the good memories of living in the village. Simple and peaceful,” he says adding that is perhaps the reason why most of his works are doused in moonlight and painted in lighter shades.
Tenzin has stuck to drawing village life because he thinks the art of living is best seen there. “Our roots are in the village, especially for me. My life was in black and white but it felt free. For the most part, I think we are trapped, playing in a designated patch of land, living in measured and constricted spaces,” he explains. Swimming in pools and swimming in the natural currents of water are entirely different experiences. “It’s your heart in the end that keeps wanting more. Let it go. Material things don’t equate to happiness,” he adds.
Tenzin paints everyday. Some days he takes up offers for drawing book covers, draws for a Ramalaya collection, and works on meters long mandalas. Other days, he is in his Dolpo Gallery in Boudha in Kathmandu. Painting is Tenzin’s way of keeping the stories and essence of Nepali life intact. But often he tries to bring some modern elements through symbolism in his works. “Limiting yourself should never be how you approach art,” he concludes.