On June first, we went to visit Zorig Chusom, an institute for teaching the thirteen traditional arts of Bhutan. The programs in this institute range from three to six years, depending on the art studied. Previous to this visit we had a class with Wangchuk, our Dzongkha instructor, on the different arts that are traditional to Bhutan. The thirteen arts are: wood work (Shingzo), stone carving (Dozo), text writing (Parzo), painting (Lhazo), sculpture (Jimzo), casting (Lugzo), wood turning (Shagzo), blacksmithing (Garzo), ornament making (Troe ko), bamboo work (Tsherzo), paper making (Dezo), tailoring/embroidery (Tshemzo), and weaving (Thagzo).
We were dropped off at the Thimphu Zorig Chusum campus, in front of the building that houses its administration and gift shop, faced by a garden with a big sculpture of the four harmonious friends.. We followed Wangchuk, and after a little while we were let into a room that had a u-shaped table with four young guys carving wooden images of the wheel of the Buddhist dharma. On the s the wall was a display of work that they had previously done as well as works that lay ahead in the curriculum. We were told that they not only work the wood but must also manufacture their own tools.
The next room was the classroom for clay sculpting, where six students were working on clay images of crowned figures who sat astride snow lions, which stood about a foot tall. In Bhutan, the technique for preparing clay for sculpting includes adding fibers from the dafne tree to the clay to give it a consistency that allows for making figures that have arms, legs, or other narrow projections coming out of the main body of the piece. Regular clay does not allow this kind of work since it does not have the consistency or strength required, and collapses. The work was impressive; to the eyes of somebody who is not an expert (like us), the figures looked as perfect as the ones one encounters in temples, maybe they were, we wouldn’t know. Some looked closer to being done, with the sculptor working on the last details; some others still lacked heads or limbs. As with the students working on carving wood, these students also made their own tools and prepared their own clay.Then we went to the sewing section. The room was full of rows of pedal (not electric) sewing machines, and in front stood two manikins dressed in clothes the that the students had made. The next room was embroidery. This one was especially exciting because Sara is working at Zorig Chusum giving English lessons in exchange for embroidery classes. We got to see the project she was working on as well as the work other students were doing. Embroidery I consisted of small projects like doing flowers and clouds. Embroidery II taught students how to make very big pieces, such as thondrols.
The next place we visited was the most mind-blowing for me: shoes, and more specifically high heel shoes. This was something that none of us were expecting to see there, as this was the painting room. The shoe style was of very tall wedge made out of wood, carved and painted with dragons or clouds or Buddhist icons. Then a sole, straps and other finishing touches were added to create the most awesome shoes I have ever seen in my life.This was the last stop before the show room; naturally I ran over to see if I could buy a pair of the shoes. Unfortunately they didn’t have them for sale; in fact the lady at the show room didn’t seem to know what I was talking about when I mentioned them. Professor Owens thought that maybe they were making them for the fashion show that was going to take place soon, but it proved that the shoes had been specially commissioned by a designer. On the bright side, the show room was full of art that the students had made, including sculptures, tangkhas, embroidery, carvings, and clothing. Some people bought carvings and some others of us bought fun clothes made out of traditional gho fabric. On our way to our final stop we went into a traditional boot store which custom made boots for men and women.
Then we did some shopping at the Association for the Preservation of Indigenous Crafts shops across from the Taj Tashi, and went to lunch to celebrate Catherine’s twenty second birthday at Chula, a very nice Indian restaurant, where we had one of the most delicious meals so far:the perfect way to finish a nice and local weekend field trip. For some of us, however, the trip was not over. So inspired by the tshemzo they had seen, they went on a treasure hunt for scraps of cloth for projects of their own, first at Professor Owens’s gho tailor and then, emboldened by their success, to numerous other tailors in downtown Thimphu. Watch this space for their future creations!
– Ana Brenescoto