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13 january 2012 001Dharamshala: On a hilltop nearby the north Indian town of Dharamasala sits a unique art studio that works to preserve the Tibetan art of thangka painting.

The Tan Gul Gatso studio's mission statement is to "preserve the tradition of thangka painting by training a new generation of painters, and to bring greater awareness and understanding of this art form to people around the world."

Almost ten years ago, Lobsang, age 24, came to apprentice at Tan Gul Gatso under thangka master Lobsang Choegyal.

Lobsang, whose mother and brother remain in Tibet, came to Dharamasala as a refugee in 1994, to study at Masuvie Tibetan school. However, he was not hugely interested in his studies and, through family connections, came to Tan Gul Gatso at the age of 15, where the master asked him to stay.

"It was extremely difficult at first to draw," he said. "I never had interest in art - I wanted to play with my friends and my hobbies were in sports.

"In the art of thankga, it is not contemporary art where you can draw whatever you please. Instead this art has specific measurements depending on the different deities and a very specific way you must draw them."

For their first three months, students learn to draw the Buddha's face until their skills reach a level of consistency.

Next, if they win the master's approval, they spend two to three years learning to sketch the bodies of the various deities in pencil. Having acquired this skill, they are finally allowed to apply paint.

"Thankga is a life-long dedication to the art and I want to pursuit it," said Lobsang. "[It] is very important because it is part of Tibetan culture. It is mental training to paint each day with consistency."

He spends about seven hours a day painting and is tasked mainly with detailing buildings, grass, flowers, clouds and sky. He also prepares canvases for the master.

The master usually draws the sketches, which are then painted by three other artists.

"Thangka painting requires extended concentration, attention to detail, and knowledge of Buddhist philosophy," said Lobsang, "and must be carried out in a peaceful environment.

"[It] is a very humble art, in a sense that you never sign the art work."

Lobsang, who last spoke to his family on the phone seven years ago, said, "If Tibet is free, it would be easier to go back...I would like to go back to Tibet.

"In the future I want to make more painting. Now I am still learning and developing skills."

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