Famous Tibetan painter of religious art dies at 82 — Radio Free Asia

Tenpa Rabten, a prominent painter of Tibetan religious scrolls called thangkas, has died aged 82, RFA has learned.

Rabten, who passed on the knowledge of his traditional art form to hundreds of students, died Monday in the Tibetan capital Lhasa, according to sources in the region.

Born into a family of artists in 1941, Rabten was introduced to thangka painting at an early age. His grandfather Aepa Tsering Gyawu was the personal artist of 13e Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, and was one of many artists who designed images for Tibetan banknotes used before China took control of Tibet in 1951.

Tempa Rabten finishing a painting of Padma Sambhava, the 7th century Indian master who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Photo: Gelukpa

Rabten’s father, Drungtok Kelsang Norbu, was a professor at the Creative Training Institute under the Kashag, Tibet’s governing council before the takeover.

Much of Tibet’s cultural heritage was destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, and Tibetan artists like Tenpa Rabten were banned from producing traditional religious art. However, Rabten later wrote thousands of articles on traditional Tibetan painting and served from 2014 as a mentor in the National Association of Chinese Artists.

In 1980 Rabten founded a private fine arts school offering free education to underprivileged students, eventually training around 200 artists. He has also taught as a professor of traditional Tibetan painting at Tibet University in Lhasa and has received international recognition, including awards in China and Japan, honoring his contributions to the arts.

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Tibetan 100 Sang banknote, first printed in 1913 during the time of the 13th Dalai Lama. The artist who designed the note was Tenpa Rabten’s grandfather, Apa Tsering Gyau who was the master painter for the Tibetan government in Lhasa. Denominations of all Tibetan currencies were used until 1959. Photo: Gelukpa

Speaking to RFA, Buchung Nubgya, a Tibetan living in New York, said many of his own teachers were close friends of Tenpa Rabten and shared the same enthusiasm for their profession. He himself had met Rabten several times, he said.

“There have been many teachers of thangka painting, but Tenpa Rabten was someone who trained hundreds of students under his personal guidance, and he contributed immensely to the preservation of traditional Tibetan painting,” Nubgya said. .

“His passing is an irreparable loss to Tibetan tradition.”

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Artwork by Tenpa Rabten depicting the Buddhist deity Chakra Sambhara. Photo: Gelukpa

The Thangka paintings date from the 7th century. They are not only appreciated for their aesthetic beauty, they also serve as aids in education and meditation, as each detail has a meaning that refers to the concepts of Buddhist philosophy.

Thangka also have a ceremonial use. Some Tibetan monasteries have huge Thangka scrolls which are unrolled on certain holidays for public viewings and ceremonies.

The traditional art has been preserved and transmitted through the lineage of Thangka masters and their students. Sometimes the line stays in the family and is passed down from father to son. An original Thangka painting is a rarity and can cost between $1,000 and $15,000 depending on its size and intricacy.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Written in English by Richard Finney.