Dorje: Can you please say a few words about the work you are engaged with these days as an artist?
Kheba Dorje: Though we say artist in general, I’ve been doing lhabri (painting) work. I learned it many years ago.
Q: What kind of artworks did you make and where? Can you recall memories of your works?
A: I should start with my teacher Uncle Jimmy. I started learning from him in 2031 BS and compled the classes in 2032 BS. We did not go through extensive thigpe classes, considering that it would have taken 5-6 years; we learnt simple thigpe of the Buddha and various techniques of colouring. From among the students, four of us came down to Kathmandu after fifteen months. Although he said, that we are the chosen ones, the first monastery we worked on was Mani Dhungyur Gonpa in Sermathang (Hyolmo), were all the students of our teacher, Uncle Jimmy participated in the work. It must be still there, isn’t it?
Dorje: Hm, the temple is still there, it was renovated, but the old wall paintings are not there anymore.
Kheba Dorje: I didn’t visit it this time. That’s the one, where we worked first time, after learning how to paint.
Q: Did you learn in Kathmandu or in the village?
A: In the village. We used to learn painting in the biggest house, which also housed an agricultural development bank. It was destroyed during the earthquake. We were altogether 15-16 students. The ones living nearby would come to class in the morning and go home after, and those coming from Choba would to stay in the big house.
Q: Where did Meme Jimmy learn how to paint?
A: His teacher was Meme Khejung, whose family is originally from Chimi, uncle of Meme Jamyang. And then, the final completion of his studies was done with Kheba Wangdi, Kanchha Lama’s father.
Q: What courses did you have with Meme Jimmy?
A: The most important one was painting. He was a very open-minded person (and I am not praising him because he was my teacher). He used to talk about various fields of kheba (expertise) that he had learnt, which included stone work, wall building, wood works, basket weaving, painting and others. As I remember, he was the best wall builder of the area. He built the walls of his own house. Models of dramnyen (a traditional lute) was developed by him. He made better masks than others. That time his paintings were very high quality, because he wanted to use them as examples for us. He didn’t want his students to lag behind others. Kheba Legshey – a Tibetan painter in Kathmandu – made a set of two very fine shitro thangkas, one peaceful and one wrathful for Meme Nho Babu’s place in Tarkegyang. Meme Jimmy borrowed them to show us, and told us, that Kheba Lekshey said, if we can achieve similar quality, that will be good enough. We made a set of them by ourselves and upon completion Meme Jimmy gave us certificates, saying that we are all set to go out and work on our own. That set of two shitro thangkas were the best in the region and he brought them for us and taught us the techniques used for its painting.
Q: Were there other teachers available to teach if you wanted, or he was the only master painter around?
A: In order to help us explore more about painting, he tried twice to bring Kheba Legshey, a Tibetan from Kathmandu. Because it didn’t work out, he brought those thangkas instead. After bringing those thangkas, he himself worked to generate resources and let four of us paint four sets from the very beginning to the very end. When we completed the thangkas, he encouraged us to leave. Other than him, there used to be a lama living there named Meme Gomchen. Did you have an opportunity to meet him?
Dorje: I don’t think I met him.
Kheba Dorje: He lived in Melamchim. He was a lama of chöd (T. gcod) and was traveling around. He visited the twenty-one graveyards.
Q: My experience with Meme Jimmy (your teacher) was, that he maintained good relationship with lamas.
A: He respected lamas a lot. He said, he had learnt astrology from Bod Meme. We have also learnt some basic astrology, but after coming to Kathmandu I never had time to learn more. Later he told us, that Bod Meme and we are from the same clan and he is from Padap. Other than him, nobody knew anything about Bod Meme, except his name. Meme Jimmy always maintained a good relationship with lamas.
Q: From among high lama and Rinpoches, I think he also had good relationship with HH Chatral Rinpoche. Do you know about that?
A: Meme Jimmy told us, that for the empowerment cememony of Tashi Sum conducted in Neding in the presence of Chatral Rinpoche, he took care of all the managerial works including acting as a guide for Rinpoche.
Q: Was there anything you did not learn from him, and you regretted it later?
A: About four years ago, when he couldn’t see any more, I visited him and had a chat with him for about four hours. I asked him about some basic things. I felt, he would live for a few more years, as his body was strong, and his mind was fresh, only he was not able to see. I was not aware everything he knew, and at that meeting it turned out, that he knew how to keep away crows and wild boars; basically, any animals. The way it works is, that you blow some mantras on the land and that would keep crows and animals away from the land. I assume that he had learnt it from Meme Gomchen. I missed that. Probably no one had learnt that. As he is no more, there is no point to have regret.
Q: Meme Jimmy had his teachers, who must have had their teachers too. The knowledge of painting was transferred through a chain of teachers. How do you find the transmission of knowledge? Has the knowledge developed during the decades and centuries or deteriorated?
A: Up until know it developed a lot, however, those living in the past were more hardworking, because they had always something to work on, from dawn till dusk. When they copied a pecha (religious book), precise writing was important, and paintings had to be done in the morning and dark under lamps. They put so much hard work into it, but nowadays modern technology is available. You don’t have to scale the painting, you can do it with a simple photocopy. You can photocopy a book and a thigpe (a sample painting) as well.
Q: I have been told by many painters, that painters from Hyolmo have a good brand name in the market. Is that the case?
A: Hm. You can say that. I may be the first Hyolmo painter to go to Kham in Tibet to paint 1000 statues of the Buddha. Those statues were delivered from Delhi, as Patan in Kathmandu that time did not have such good production as it has now. I helped to buy 1000 eigh-inch tall statues of the Buddha in Delhi, and sent them to Lhasa via Kathmandu. They were machine made. We sent golden leaves too, to do the finishing. They could not do the job themselves, so I was requested to travel there. I stayed there for two and a half months and worked in a couple of monasteries during that period. Since then many Hyolmo artists have travelled to Kham, Lhadakh. I haven’t heard anyone travelling to Bhutan, maybe because they have their own painters, but we go to Sikkim, Darjeeling (maybe not to Kalimpong as they also have their own painters); Hyolmo artists are invited to Arunachal, Himachal and Lhadakh, and that makes us proud. In recent days also many of our painters travel. Once Thrangu Rinpoche told me: “You, Hyolmo people are doing well. Hyolmo people are clean, Dharma-minded and artists, too. In Thrangu Rinpoche’s Gonpa many Hyolmo monks used to stay. Uncle Babu from Sermathang, who passed away, he used to work for the monastery and other Hyolmo artists, too. Rinpoche told me that. Rinpoche also told me, that from among the different communities of Nepal, Hyolmos are the best artists.
Dorje: Thank you, Uncle. Thugjeche.