Norbulingka has been training artisans in traditional crafts since 1995, giving new purpose and employment to many young Tibetans in exile. We interviewed a few, who have been apprenticed since their teens, to better understand and appreciate the work they have devoted their lives to.
We are starting the series – Interviews with Traditional Craftsmen, when we bring the focus on the art, the artists and the process of their creation. Today, we speak with Tenzin Gelek, statue making artist who have been learning and practising the art since 2003.
What were the reasons you joined the statue making at Norbulingka?
Since childhood, I was interested in art and hoped to one day acquire an artistic skill. I knew little about thangka painting or woodwork, but had friends from my settlement who were working in the statue making workshop at Norbulingka Institute and I listened with fascination when they narrated the work process of making a statue. I told my parents I wanted to make statue making my vocation, and they supported my decision, I was 13 years old at the time. The Norbulingka admissions requested I send a sketch and after some time, I was told I was admitted as an apprentice in the statue making studio. I am proud to say that it was my personal wish and interest that led me to become a statue making artist.
How do you feel about your work? Did you interest grow with your skill?
I began my training as statue maker in 2003. In the 8th year of my training, I felt my interest waning, and was thinking to pursue another line of work. Then I was introduced to casting, and made a statue using the technique. This process rekindled my interest and motivation. Casting requires patience, hard work and determination but I realized that if motivation is strong, it leads to a sense of purpose. I was inspired by the need to preserve this art form and make it available to future generations and was fascinated with the stories behind the different deities, and how each has its own characteristics.
What do you like the best about your work? Do you have favorite things you like to do?
I like casting statues, working with gold, creating ornamental pieces for statues, stupas and jewelry for statues. I would say this work is my favorite. I find making statues from copper sheets with the hand hammering technique difficult and very time consuming, taking anywhere between 3-4 months to finish a statue, whereas a cast statue is smaller and is completed more quickly.
What is the favorite piece you made?
My favorite piece is a 3ft silver Enlightenment stupa, Jangchub chorten. It was completely hand-beaten and took about 4 months to complete.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years? What do you want to accomplish by then?
It is difficult to evaluate and anticipate the future; I am deeply grateful to my late master Pempa Dorje la, under whom I had the privilege of working for about 10 years. This experience made me what I am today. Today, most young Tibetans have little interest in traditional art, even fewer in statue making. I would like to help younger Tibetans develop a love of this wonderful skill.
I wish to continue to honing my skills and pursuing my love for goldsmithing, making ornaments and jewelry.
Read about Gelek’s master Pemba Dorje here.