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A part-time mask-maker

A first-year Zorig Chosum student puts his skills to lucrative use in the winter break

Chali, Mongar: It is a fine Sunday morning.  Sonam Wangchuk, 19, emerges from his house with a few tools in one hand, and a wooden block in the other.

Wearing a cap on his head and a knitted muffler around his neck, he sits on a plastic carpet spread out on the lawn and starts chipping the wooden blocks.  Within hours, the wood starts taking the shape of an animal’s face.

Sonam, spending his winter vacation in Chali with his father and stepmother, who are working in the national workforce, is making the best use of his time, making different types of masks depicting various animals and mythical creatures.

Having joined the Zorig Chosum institute in Trashiyangtse last year, after studying till class IX in his village Kengkhar, Sonam has today acquired a fine skill in woodcraft.  But the young man also had it in his blood, with his ancestors adept at the trade for decades.  He also apprenticed with one of his teachers in Kengkhar.

Since then, he has never given up the work, especially when he has time during winter breaks.

“I used to do it during most vacations, right from my childhood days, and earn money for my next academic session,” he said.

He said there were many, who have a comfortable life and need not work as hard to take up such jobs in winter.

“It’s a perfect activity for me, especially because I’m interested in it and it earns me good money.

Some of his finished works

These days, he is engaged in making shaw bab, deer masks, an order forest officials placed to donate to one of the community lhakhangs in Pemagatshel.  He earns Nu 1,500 to 3,000 for each mask.  For one winter, he makes about Nu 20,000 from his artwork.

But his skills are not limited to wood carving.  He also paints altar tables, for which he charges Nu 10,000 a set.

Sonam Wangchuk said, despite a lot of experience, making masks was a difficult task.

After availing a different kind of wood, locally called row shing, it’s cut into a block.  Using almost 30 different types of tools, he carved the wood.  While he smoothens the surface first, he gradually moves into carving the features of faces, depending on which animal mask he is carving.

As the mask starts taking shape on the outside, he also starts digging out to create a hollow inside, using bigger tools.

“I have to be extremely careful when doing this because it could break with little pressure,” he said.

He said the entire process of completely carving a mask takes him three days.  Masks that require horns take an additional day or two.

Sonam said the art is also called Lhazo (God’s image maker).

“Doing this will help me earn merit and, since everyone is bound for death, I thought this was the perfect way to live,” he said, adding, while he hoped to start business, he also wanted to teach wood carving to younger people.

By Dechen Tshering, Mongar

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