Handicraft: Karma Jamtsho, who had just quit monastic education, was heartbroken when he was disqualified from attending National Institute for Zorig Chusum (traditional art and crafts) because he didn’t have the required minimum qualification of Class VI.
Karma Jamtsho had travelled far from Khamdhang in Trashiyangste with advise from his long-separated parents. His mother, struggling to make a living from a puny plot in Khamdhang, had sent her son to father’s in Thimphu to learn something so that he could make a living out of it.
Karma Jamtsho was intrigued by rimo (drawing), and he wanted to join the institute to learn more about it. But he had not the qualification certificate. So he joined Choki Tradional Art School (CTAS).
Started in 1999 by retired drangpon, Choki Dorji, CTAS was training traditional art and crafts to children from underprivileged family background. Karma Jamtsho had the good fortune to get into the institute in 2011.
Sonam Choki, the principal of the institute, who decided pursue her father’s dream after completing Class XII, said: “My father initiated the school solely to help underprivileged students who were interested in traditional art and crafts but couldn’t pursue because of numerous reasons.”
The idea of the institute was born after group of disadvantaged students approached the then director of the institute, Choki Dorji, to learn arts and crafts informally. Initially two-three students from far-flung villages began learning the trade informally at Choki Dorji’s place. Later the informal classes was upgraded to the only private art school providing free art and crafts training.
“Even now, the school gives free training,” Sonam Choki said.
Since its inception, CTAS has produced 88 students trained in various fields such as drawing, lhadri (painting), patra (wood carving), jimzo (sculpting), thagzo (handloom weaving) and tshemzo (embroidery). Today, the school has 145 students, of which 20 percent had never even been to school. The rest constituted those who did not qualify for higher studies, school dropouts, former novice monks and financially disadvantaged children.
The school’s first batch of nine girl trainees graduated last year following a generous support from Leila and her father, Koenraad, from London, the UK.
“Girls are taught both handloom weaving and tailoring to ensure that they don’t suffer if the weaving fails from the stiff competition from cheaper imported clothes,” Sonam Choki said.
Girls are also taught design and tailoring in collaboration with Bernina Tailoring of Switzerland. The school also teaches English, Mathematics and Dzongkha to help students who never went to schools.
“Basic computer classes are also offered to school dropouts,” Sonam Choki said, adding that CTAS alumni are all doing pretty well after graduation.
While few came back to institute as resource person, others are either working with business firms or are the owners of a business.
One of the institute’s alumni, Sangay Tenzin, has opened his own private enterprise, Druk Handicraft Art Master.
“We want to exclusively produce and sale only traditional art and crafts products,” Sangay Tenzin said.
But people like Sangay Tenzin face stiff competitions from the increasing number of traders who deal in imported handicraft items. Like the CTAS principal, Sangay Tenzin, said that increasing reliance on cheaper imported products is a serious threat to traditional art and crafts.
“If we keep importing because of huge profit margin, many youth graduating from traditional art and crafts institutes could end up without job,” Sangay Tenzin said. He added that today over 70 percent of the items sold in handicraft stalls are imported.
A veteran lhadrip, Kinzang Wangdi, said that while Bhutanese handicraft items have no international market, drop in demand of thangka (scroll) from Taiwan by 50 numbers from 100 a year before is worrying.
“Market is going to be a problem in the future for students graduating from traditional art and crafts institutes and existing practitioners,” Kinzang Wangdi said.
Lack of international forum to exhibit and export also remains a hindrance to traditional artisans and craftsmen, who are faced with stiff competition from substitute importers.
And then, there is the price that determines the market.
“The artisans and craftsmen must change their tendency to charge higher price,” Kinzang Wangdi said.
The art school with 11 handicraft shops is conducting art and crafts exhibition for 10 days at Choki Khangzang in Kawajangsa.