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Tibetan Buddhist Child Monks of Tsechokling Monastery add artistic flavor to McLeod Ganj

October 26, 2009

ALEX O. BLEECKER
The Tibet Post
October 24, 2009

Dharamshala -- Nestled against the cliff off an
alley leading down from McLeod Ganj's main
square, the Tsechokling Monastery generally goes
unknown to those who have no specific business
there; its location seems like it was chosen for
secrecy. On Wednesday October 22, however,
Tsechokling's secret was out, as it opened its
doors to locals and foreigners alike for a
one-day mixed media art exhibition organized by
the Half Moon Project entitled "Inner
Reflections: A Creative Journey through Art by
Tibetan Buddhist Child Monks of Tsechokling Monastery."

After the ten minute walk that winds down stairs
through the monastery grounds, visitors reached
the gallery space where they were greeted by a
matrix of striking, stencil portraits of monks
spray-painted on silver metallic surfaces. Stark
and powerful, upon initial viewing visitors
thought the portraits may be a tribute to Tibetan
political prisoners, though soon learned they
were self-portraits created by the child monks themselves.

The gallery space itself was a simple square room
with west-facing windows that, late in the day,
illuminated the art, giving it a mystical,
glowing quality. The exhibition was divided into
themes including monastic life, personal
connections to Buddhism, visions of an ideal
society, and aspirations for the future. "Value:
Respect," a collaborative diptych painting by
Ngawang (13), Thupten (15), Sangay (12), and
Mingmar (16), depicts a contented child monk
seated in the left panel, then prostrating before
a shrine on the right. As monastic residents,
meditation and prostration are integral
activities in the child monks' daily lives.

For two months, three facilitators ran 3½ hour
daily workshops wherein they introduced the young
monks to various artistic media (including paint,
clay, stencil, and pin-hole photography in
anticipation of the exhibition. "The Magical
Garden," a collaborative painting by four of the
artists that depicts a fantastical scene in which
plants and animals grow and thrive in harmony,
hints at the vibrant colors and liberation from
conventions of a Kandinsky painting. "Everything
is coming together," explained Ngawang Tsering, a
13-year-old from Sikkim and one of the
collaborating artists. "There are five suns, all
with magical powers to make things grow," he
elaborated, explaining why the insects are larger
than the fruit, which are larger than the suns.
"Everything grows in unconventional shapes and
forms," added Priyanka Singh, one of the
facilitators of the project. Of the 15 child
monks at Tsechokling between the ages of 10 and
17, all nine of those who volunteered for the
project come from Sikkim, Nepal, or Darjeeling.
Like Ngawang, most come from working class
families who still live in their home villages some 1,000 km away.

Working on a Take Off 2009 grant from His
Holiness' Foundation of Universal Responsibility
(FUR), the project was organized by the Half Moon
Project which, its website
(thehalfmoonproject.blogspot.com) explains, is an
arts initiative committed to providing "child
monks with a means to express their experiences
of Tibetan monastic life and spirituality." Based
on the belief in the power of art to transcend
social, cultural, and economic barriers, the
organization is comprised of three individuals
that are deeply dedicated to unlocking the
artistic potential of young monks: Priyanka
Singh, a documentary photographer based in Delhi,
Tenzin Wangden, a residential monk and teacher at
the monastery, and Sonia Tomasiello a creative
arts therapist. This year's FUR Take Off grants
were given specifically to commemorate fifty
years of Tibetan exile in India, a perfect match for the Half Moon Project.

"Our intention was to give the children a chance
to express themselves. We are very impressed with
their work," said Wangden, who has been at
Tsechokling since 1986. Last year ten Take Off
grants were awarded to individual artists working
in a variety of media. This was the first given
to an organization working specifically with
child monks. Sometime in 2010, these youngsters'
art will be part of a larger collective exhibition in Delhi.
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