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  • Portraiture on the Periphery:Recognizing Changsem Sherab Zangpo
  • Rob Linrothe (bio)

[A]lthough art history often attempts to bring the object back to life, finally it is our means of laying it to rest, of putting it in its history and taking it out of our own, where we have witnessed its departure.1

The development of and practice in regional styles at the edges of the Tibetan cultural horizon were often dramatically affected by direct institutional links to a few prestigious Central Tibetan (dbus tsang) monasteries or religious personalities. The relations between the “mother monasteries” at the centers and their satellites on the peripheries, however, could be more complex than a simple dependency of the provincial upon the capital(s). When representatives of what the center regarded as the periphery participated at the center, and then brought home, as it were, religious and aesthetic aspects of the cultural life they had encountered, both center and periphery may have regarded this as an expansion of the center. Yet once rooted in a regional context, an artistic practice could take on an autonomous life of

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Fig 1.

Phugtal Monastery, Zangskar, Jammu and Kashmir State, India.

Photograph by author, 2010.

[End Page 59]

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Fig 2.

Changsem Sherab Zangpo Thangka. Ca. 2008. Made in Dharamsala, now at Phugtal Monastery, Zangskar. Donor Geshé Kalzang Kunkhyen. Appliqué; h. approx. 212 cm.

Photograph by author, 2010.

which the center was hardly aware. The pantheon of masters (again, religious and aesthetic) and their works that formed at the center were adopted on the fringes but then at times expanded to include those by whose efforts that pantheon arrived in the provinces. Such regional heroes tend to be lauded on the periphery but ignored by the center. In that sense, the regional can be said to know more than the center. Once the center exerts a greater cultural hegemony, however, a region’s knowledge of its own distinctive history tends to pale or even disappear, as happened among monasteries with Geluk (dge lugs) lineage affiliations during the rise to near-supremacy of the Dalai Lamas over the course of the seventeenth century. When the center’s master narratives replace the regional ones, local references are diminished or erased, for they were never lodged at the center. The present essay considers an example of the inadvertent losses that have occurred in recent times when local knowledge progressively and willingly succumbed to the allure of the distant sophisticated, apparently all-encompassing regime.

I have recently studied some of the implications of this type of narrowing and undermining of the “multiple unity” on the later arts of Ladakh and Zangskar. Landscape settings, in particular, were adopted with increasing homogeneity across the Tibetan sphere in the [End Page 60] seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but so too were packaged compositions prepared at the center and transmitted to the cultural borders.2 Once Geluk artistic practices, as well as monastic curricula and rituals, in Western Tibet began to be increasingly determined by advanced circles in Central Tibet, or by their transplanted, exilic versions in Dharmasala and South India after 1959, many aspects of the independence, freedom, and even understanding of visual representation of local themes were gradually lost. In earlier times, the center benefited from the fresh influx of developments at the fringes. In later times, the benefits that returned were not without local costs. This essay attempts to face “the ambivalences, contradictions, … the tragedies and ironies”3 that attend the (always partial) psychic provincialization of Geluk Zangskar through its self-alignment with master narratives emanating from the Geluk monasteries and teachers of Tashilhunpo, Lhasa, and Dharamsala.

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Fig 3.

Detail of Fig. 2.

On 26 July 2009, villagers in the vicinity of the monastery of Phugtal (phug thar; Fig. 1) in Zangskar (zangs dkar; India) walked for several hours in order to arrive in time for the first unrolling and public viewing of a special new appliqué thangka (painted or sewn scroll with cloth mountings) depicting one of the important historical founders of the monastery, Changsem Sherab Zangpo (byang sems shes rab bzang...


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