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February 5, 2012

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The dying art of Tibetan calligraphy

KALNOR is among the few people who still practice traditional Tibetan calligraphy with a bamboo stick on a wooden board.

The 50-centimeter-long, 25-centimeter-wide birch board, known as jangshing in Tibetan, was an essential stationery item for Kalnor and his peers when they first learned to write.

"We had to practice on the jangshing for at least two years before we could write on paper," said Kalnor, 31.

The jangshings for beginners were often marked with four lines, and the number of lines was reduced as the students' writing improved, until only one line was left to mark the location of the text.

According to Kalnor, the ancient writing material was economical and green, as old jangshings could be used anew after being washed in the river and dried again.

As a child, Kalnor used bamboo sticks for a pen.

The makeshift ink almost always came from the kitchen - charred barley or soya sauce.

"When we wrote on the jangshing, we sat on the floor with legs crossed and wrote every stroke with patience," Kalnor said. "It was not just a practice of calligraphy - it was also a process of extreme concentration and meditation."

A master of fine arts, Kalnor is now an art teacher at a secondary school in Duilong Deqing County on the outskirts of Lhasa.

"Children who learned to write with the jangshing concentrate easily on everything they do."

The past two decades of modernization, however, have led to the traditional writing boards being replaced by well-printed exercise books and computers. Few children still use a jangshing, even in remote areas.

Beginning in 2008, Kalnor traveled across Tibet searching for jangshings and expanding his private collection of the traditional writing pad that will soon fade from public memory.

"It would be a pity if we lose this part of Tibetan culture," said Kalnor at his gallery on Barkor, a famous commercial street in the heart of Lhasa.

Kalnor has proudly put his favorite jangshing collections on display at the gallery, including one inherited from his father.

The jangshings were shown alongside his modern Tibetan paintings on handmade papers and works of butterflies and Tara - a female Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism.

Phubu Tsering, a visitor to the gallery, said he still remembered how he learned to write the Tibetan alphabet on a jangshing when he was 6.

"My mother made me some ink by adding water to barley flour that was fried dark. Sometimes she added sugar to make the liquid thicker, and I used to suck my 'pen' to taste its sweetness," said Phubu Tsering, 46.

For many Tibetans, jangshing and traditional Tibetan calligraphy are an important part of their childhood memories.

"Many things of the good old days will be replaced by new things, and it might not be practical to keep jangshing, but this writing tool certainly played a major role in Tibetan education, so we should at least carry forward the essence of the traditional culture it represents," Kalnor said.


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