Meet the Artisans
Get a glimpse of the lives and stories of the artisans in Bhutan, making a living and a name for themselves.
SPECIALTY: WOOD CARVING WANGDUEPHODRANG
Sangay Penjor, A Loden Laureate learned his skills at intricate wood carving at the Institute of the Thirteen Arts (Zorig Chusum) in Kawangjangsa, Thimphu after which he worked on the construction of many Lhakhangs as a carpenter and carver.
He recently moved his small carpentry house from Wangdue to Lobesa because he couldn’t afford the rent. He says working with Dr. Isabelle has allowed him to experiment with many other designs and believes he’s been exposed to the possibilities of creating any piece of art. “I feel proud when my work gets appreciated”, says Mr. Sangay and hopes to do better than he did before. The support and encouragement made him feel motivated and he vowed to work better and not to be incompetent. He didn’t face much problem in working because there was no communication gap between him and the owner.
“My greatest reward is that the house project also motivated a young wood carver from Wangdue, Sangay Penjor, a Loden’s laureate, to explore new ways of using his art. Within a year, he was extremely productive and very successful. I hope that he will inspire other craftsmen around the country.” (isabelle antunes)
“Sangay first did some wood carved shutters for my windows in Thimphu that created a wonderful ambiance. I then asked him to reproduce a stool shown on a photo. Then, he proposed to make a baby cot. I was so exited when he took the initiative. I gave him the dimension and a few weeks later, he made the finest baby cot I had ever seen, finely carved. It turned out that Dhensa Hotel was looking for a baby cot at the time. When the GM saw Sangay’s work, he immediately bought it and ordered another one. Their meeting was magic to watch.
Later, I introduced Sangay to Karma from RKPO Resort in Sobsoka to whom I had suggested to make a bar designed after a chosum. It was a big contract for Sangay but more importantly, it was an opportunity for him to showcase what he could do and to promote his work. Karma and I strongly encouraged him to be as creative as he could be and we left the design entirely up to him. He did an amazing job, so much so that Karma gave him his chosum to do next. I then asked Sangay to make a lamp stand, then a chair, some stools and some trays. And each time, I witnessed the same enthusiasm in him to find ways to make something nice and to meet my expectation. I am proud of him” says Dr. Isabelle Antunes “I was very happy to have been introduced to Sangay by Dr. Antunes.
He has a done a marvelous job at the hotel and created a masterpiece. As a businessman and potential customer to such artisans, I deeply feel that it is our duty to acknowledge, recognize and make good use of such artistic services and reward them with good payment. Such authentic intricacies will not be found in cheap discounted furniture and woodwork that we look for. If we want the best we should always be willing to pay the best price for it. I look forward to hiring Sangay Penjor for a lot more projects with my hotel in the future.”
Karma, Resort Owner Punakha
SPECIALTY: NETTLE WEAVING LANGTEL, TRONGSA
52 year old aum Tsendu Choden started her nettle weaving business back in 2005 with the support from Tarayana Foundation. Today she produces nettle cloth pieces for cushions, table runners, bed throws and even scarves for women. “Tarayana foundation trained us in nettle weaving. They also helped us build a small house to maintain the raw materials.” says aum Tsendu. She explains that the work has been more lucrative than farming as long as she put in a lot of effort in production process; from collecting the nettle plants, to manufacturing nettle threads to finally weaving the nettle fabric. But she also says the challenges are many. “It is a constant struggle going to the other side of the mountain to collect the nettle plant. It isn’t easily available and the plants are only seasonal. We can’t travel alone so we have to ask male family members to escort us since there are bears and other wild animals to worry about. It is also very painful to handle the nettle plants when we collect them. Once it’s brought here, we also have to be soak them and dry them before we can make raw nettle threads for the fabric. From three kilo grams of nettle plants we can only produce around 1 kilo gram since so much of the bark of the plant has to be removed before soaking.
” Aum Tsendu also talks about how the art of nettle weaving existed even during her ancestral era. “My grandmother would weaved sacks to store rice and other things but people stopped weaving when cheaper sacks became available from India. At present, Aum Tsendu has her mother and her young niece helping with with the production. “It’s difficult convincing the younger generation to stay back home in the village and pursue such businesses as most young people prefer staying in towns and looking for jobs there. This business is actually becoming lucrative as long as enough attention and hard work are being put in it. It’s not that there aren’t opportunities in the villages…the problem is that most people don’t realize the value of it.” Aum Tshendu.
“I worked closely with Aum Tshendu Choden and the nettle weavers in Langtel to make indoor cushions as well as bed throws for outdoors mattress and cushion covers. All are made in natural dye and are unique. When one knows how difficult it is the collect the nettle and to process until it becomes a thread, it is priceless. It is important to say that I was able to develop new produce from nettle only because the weavers had been trained before hand by Taryana. This is one example of the many skills that with guidance could become a niche product. .” Dr. Isabelle
SPECIALTY: FURNITURE UPHOLSTERY CHANGZAMTOG, THIMPHU
The Upal Upholstery is a private company in Changzamtog, Thimphu that does upholstery and sofa repair. The company has only 4 workers currently working & the owner expressed that it was hard to get experienced workers.
The company produces sofa & does repair work on cushions & sofas. The cost for a single repair depending on the quality of the materials goes up to, 18000. If the company makes new furniture the cost is about nu. 37,000.
Ugen who has been with the company for the last nine years was in charge of upholstering the nettle-weave sofa. “Dr. Isabelle came with her own designs and asked me to do the rest which I agreed. It was later that I realized how challenging it was to glue those net on the white cover. But it still is a pleasure working with her because she is one of the most supportive and encouraging clients I have worked with. The fact that she is a perfectionist and needs an impeccable quality for her final product pushed me to work hard bettering myself at my art.”
“Ugyen, the main person doing the upholstery work, and his team did all the upholstery, from modern type sofa and stools to day bed, cushions and outdoors mattress. They did a fantastic job, always trying to improve the finishing and taking pride in doing a good job until i was happy with it.” Dr. Issabelle
DORJIBI WEAVING CENTRE
SPECIALTY: TRADITIONAL WEAVING IN PROFESSIONAL HANDLOOMS DORJIBI, BUMTHANG
The Dorjibi Weaving Centre in Bumthang was launched back in 2011 with financial assistance from WWF Bhutan and Elysium Foundation (Helvetas) to enhance rural livelihoods in the buffer zones of WCP. The center is being managed by Aum Dorji, Chairperson elected from amongst the weavers.
The centre started off with 30 local women. To encourage mass production, the centre had introduced the Mechi loom, from neighbouring northeast India, and the Laotian loom. The women weavers from Dawakha, Pangrey, and Dorjibi villages under Chokor gewog could weave patterns into the kira. That was made possible with a few alterations in the style of the looms, and with trainings provided by the handicraft association of Bhutan (HAB).
With this new introduction, weavers were enthusiastic and optimistic their business will do better. “Last year the centre wove school dress for some school in the area, but despite that we ran into loss because local shops who sold the uniform refused to sell the tego and wonju to those who bought the kiras from us and people went back to buying kiras from the local shops in Bumthang.” a member of the centre said.
But despite the hardship, the remaining 12 women who still stuck around are optimistic. “To bring improvement we started with weaving bags which are in traditional style. It is much better to weave the bags and other traditional things as the visitors or the tourist we could sell to them. After that a company called Druktshog helped us. They provided a training of two weeks . The training was all about how to weave bags in different styles were the swanning machines were also provided without any cost.” The fate of the centre has been completely left to us and now the survival depends on how we can go about earning an income from the training and machinery received.”
SPECIALTY: METAL WORK TABA, THIMPHU
Initially, Gembo was a civil servant who left his job to pursue his dream of making modern furnitures using traditional designs. The artist expresses his concern about how the youth of Bhutan are adapting to modernization and forgetting our age old traditions. He hopes to preserve our culture and tradition by incorporating traditional designs such as the jachung and the dragon onto modern products so as to give a traditional feel to a modern furniture.
Gembo has worked on projects that include making furniture for huge restaurants such as the Taj Tashi and for Le Meridien, Thimphu. The cost of his products ranges according to the amount of time and the types of designs incorporated. For example, a cupboard heavily incorporated with traditional bhutanese designs cost up to 70000. The other thing that Mr. Gambo does is that he makes traditional latches and door knobs that are rarely used in our houses. He makes them using brass and copper,so the materials are not to hard to find. The only thing that Mr. Gambo has a problem with is not finding enough skilled workers to help him. He hopes that the present generation will garner interest our tradition so that we do not lose our tradition.
“Mr Gembo who works with antiques made simple but beautiful door handles in brass designed after monastery doors. I bought an old yathra from his shop and turned it into a bed runner and a small pillow for the guest room. To show how we can also recycle or make things from an object, I asked him to make a lamp from one of his largest old butterlamps.” Dr. Isabelle
SPECIALITY: CARPENTRY AND OTHER WOOD WORK LOBESA, WANGDUEPHODRANG
Most of the furniture was made by Bajo sawmill and Lobesa sawmill. I am grateful to both sawmills and especially to Mr. Raana from Lobesa sawmill for going out of his way to make pieces they never made before when most sawmills in the country only make what is in their catalouge, leaving little room for choice and creavity.” Dr. Isabelle
STUDENTS OF THE ORNAMENTAL HORTICULTURE AND LANDSCAPING COURSE, COLLEGE FOR NATURAL RESOURCES (CNR, RUB)
SPECIALTY: LANDSCAPING LOBESA, WANGDUEPHODRANG
Under the guidance of Dr. Tulsi, lecturer of ornamental horticulture and landscaping, a group of students of the CNR under her course took up a landscaping project given to them by Dr. Isabelle Antunes. Their objective was to turn a barren front yard into a luxurious garden suitable for a private residence. The results were amazing.
“When we first included the landscaping module in our curriculum at the CNR, we felt this is one emerging area in Bhutan as living standards are improving and most people are beginning to afford certain luxuries” says Dr. Tulsi. “We hope government institutions like the city corporation and hotels and resorts will begin to appreciate the skills our students will have and employ them for such services.”
Dr. Tulsi also adds that it takes a few to give an opportunity to the new and it is only after a good use of that opportunity that others begin to notice the value of the new. “Most Bhutanese do not understand the value and technical know how that goes into landscaping. It isn’t just about having flowers in your garden…you need to study the topographical aspects as well.”
Dr. Tulsi believes in keeping the designs as natural as possible. “I always teach my students to stick to the natural elements in the surrounding environment instead of creating a far too articificial space. Even when it comes to designing canopies or park benches, I always make sure the look is very nature-based.”
Choki Wangchuk, a student involved in the project, believes there is a lot of scope in landscaping in Bhutan. “I think it’s crucial for people to understand the value of landscaping. It is only through proper awareness that such skills will be noticed. Proper landscaping allows a correct way of incorporating plants, flowers or designs into the space that you want to use. When we received this project from Dr. Antunes, we also received an opportunity to apply whatever we had learnt. Gaining practical experience made us understand and appreciate it more.”
33 year old Jamyang Lhamo also agrees that a practical assignment made the students understand the theory better. “Landscaping to a hands-on labourous task. Instead of just taking notes, the assignment made us realize the difficulties involved. From getting the raw materials to making use of unused pieces to create outdoor furniture was exhausting but also very rewarding.”