Born in 1972 in ethnic Tibet, Kalsang Damchoe is a renowned master thangka painter working in exile. Benefitting from both a monastic and secular education, he has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient craft of Tibetan thangka. From his workshop in India, he works on several privately commissioned pieces at any one time. Despite his heavy schedule, Kalsang is solely concerned with the preservation of the thangka craft and schooling others in the traditional skills required to achieve the highest standards. Kalsang’s background in thangka traditional painting is extensive; he has completed works in Tibet, India, and overseas. He is an exhibited artist and notable dignities, including the Sikyong (Tibetan prime minister), Dr. Lobsang Sangey, have recognized the importance of his contribution to the preservation of Tibetan culture. Kalsang has in recent years established a popular finishing school for twenty-two advanced apprentices: he aspires to expand the school to involve more than a hundred in the continuum of the precious Tibetan thangka traditions. He lives in Dharamsala with his wife Dolma and his two teenage daughters.
Kalsang grew up in Getsang, a village in Amdo (Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture) which might best be described as a simple but deeply religious farming community. At the age of seven, he started elementary school and continued his education through to middle and high school where his principal areas of study were Tibetan language, grammar and literature. At the age of fifteen, he joined the Getsang Gedhen Choeling monastery where he closely studied Buddhist texts and learned its rituals such as Sutra and Tantric practices; his in-depth knowledge of Buddhist texts underpins the authenticity of his work. During his early days of monastic life, he developed his lifelong passion for Tibetan traditional art. During Kalsang’s time at the monastery, he was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study under relatively competent thangka teachers: he frequently expresses his appreciation for those most treasured early instructions in the ancient art of thangka painting. Many of the great masters died or escaped into exile during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The thangkas being painted in Tibet today are at best revivalist and have yet to reach the standards of excellence that have survived abroad. Kalsang’s opportunities were always limited in his homeland.
In 1988 Kalsang followed the great masters by coming to India and thanks to the kindness of His Holiness and the Central Tibetan Administration; he was able to advance his studies in Tibetan Buddhist philosophies at the Drepung Gomang monastery. In 1992, he enrolled in the Upper Tibetan Children’s Village school where he worked alongside exquisite Tibetan thangka masters namely Mr. Sonam Dhondup, Mr. Jamyang (the honorable Teshang Rinpoche’s resident artist) and Mr. Kalsang Menyik. For six years, he worked constantly, learning how to recreate the best traditional thangka paintings.
In 1998 he received instruction and guidance from Mr. Gen Sange Yeshe, the great thangka master at the Tibetan library in Dharamsala. Mr. Gen Sange Yishe specialized in the skills and techniques of the Menri painting theory. With the master’s understanding of the historical context, as well as his invaluable techniques for teaching the process of painting the most complex intricacies, Kalsang was able to become a qualified and certified Tibetan thangka painter in 2002. He is extremely proud of this accomplishment as it represented the recognition of all that he had learned in different institutes, monasteries, and settlements. Today his work has been praised in many parts of the world; he is forever indebted to his gifted teachers.
In 2005, he was invited to Rigpa Lerab Ling in South France; during his stay there he worked with six artists doing decorative paintings on both the interiors and exteriors of the newly constructed temple Palri Pema Osel Ling at Lerab Ling (a Buddhist Centre of Great Lama of So Gyal Rinpoche). Mr. Kalsang Damchoe shows much professionalism, dedication, and responsibility in his work. He has shown much attention and dedication to people who are interested in Tibetan Traditional Painting. His instruction often includes instruction on the significance and symbolism of the painting according to traditional Tibetan Texts. He is always interested in researching and likes to share his knowledge with those who are enthusiastic about Traditional Tibetan Thangka Painting.
In subsequent years, Kalsang was honored with an invitation to teach Tibetan thangka painting at the Dhongyud Gatseling convent. He gave instructions on the painting of deities in the temples. Later in September, Kalsang lectured at the 1st Global Tibetan Professionals summit on the historical content depicted in thangka paintings.
Today as founder, director, and Master of the Kalsang Tibetan Traditional Art of Thangka Painting, he continues to teach traditional Tibetan thangka craft to twenty-two apprentices; all learning advanced thangka techniques. The apprentices develop their knowledge of how new thangkas are constructed to represent a wide range of Buddhist texts: New works are made daily but always grounded in the valuable history and tradition of the thangka art. At the most elementary level, students undertake a four-year intensive apprenticeship; many of the apprentices are more advanced with as much as fifteen or more years of experience. The apprentices work alongside Kalsang on the commissioned pieces; their level of involvement reflects their level of experience. Customization in accordance with the patron’s requests is possible in some works (such as the size or the deities used in the painting, gods, demi gods-peaceful or wrathful, etc) but always true to the traditional craft.
Kalsang has devoted his life to his noble thangka craft; its instructions and preservation. Kalsang sincerely hopes to continue to bring peace, love, and happiness to the world through his work. Thangka’s painting and teaching continue to be a cherished part of his life, and through his work, he has been able to make a significant contribution to the art world through the precious traditions that he was fortunate to be born into.