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Hopes of Tibetan mask maker
update:July 29,2016
July 29, 2016 -- "The masks we make can last for hundreds of years," said Sonam Tengpa, 60, who has been making Tibetan masks for 45 years, holding a perfect 300-year-old mask that was given to him by his teacher.
While the masks will be there for years to come, Tengpa is not sure if the craft itself can survive another 300 years.
The masks were originally used in ritualistic and ceremonial dances, they are now used in Tibetan opera.
Tengpa lives and works in Dege County in southwest China's Sichuan Province. The county is the location of Dzogchen Monastery, one of the six great monasteries of the Nyingma arm of Tibetan Buddhism.
Sonam Gyaltsen, Tengpa's teacher, was an eminent monk in the monastery. At seven years old, Tengpa became his apprentice.
"It was a sensitive period then," Tengpa recalled, referring to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). "My teacher was seriously worried that our culture would be lost, so he was especially diligent in teaching me everything he knew."
Tengpa said he would always remember his teacher's last words: "Do not use your skills to satisfy a greed for money; help the monastery whenever you can; and train apprentices, pass it on."
The baton was in Tengpa's hand and he carried it with pride. For him, passing on his skills was his most important life mandate. Becoming a mask teacher at 15, he has had more apprentices than he can count.
The problem is, few continue with the craft.
"Probably they think this is not decent work, dealing with clay and mud all day, or perhaps they simply don't have the patience," Tengpa said with a sigh.
Tibetan mask is made of clay, glue and cloth. Wet clay is first molded and then air-dried. The clay mould is then covered with soft paper, on top of which layers of cloth are glued.
Between the layers of cloth, more wet clay needs to be added. "You can only glue one layer of cloth a day as it takes time for the wet clay to dry before you add another layer," Tengpa said, "six layers at the front and 12 layers at the back."
A mask takes anywhere from a week to a month to make.
Tengpa had to break some rules for this craft to last. Dzogchen Monastery dictates that students can only be male, but Tengpa taught the craft to his children, including his daughter.
"My only wish is to pass on this craft," said Tengpa.
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