Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tibetan Calligraphy

"E MA HO," gift from Kalu Rinpoche, Jan 1989

I confess: I am surprised to see the popularity that has come to Tibetan calligraphy. In the 1960s, when I first tried to familiarize myself with Tibetan letterforms, the only resource available to us (apart from the primary sources) was Csoma de Koros' Grammar of the Tibetan Language, and I will tell you a little story about that book.

In 1968, I located an original copy in the University of California Library at Berkeley. I bought what is known as a process camera, and shot lithographic negatives of the entire book. Needless to say, this entailed a fair amount of money and labor, but I felt this was a very important step. I wanted to reprint the book for free distribution.

In 1971, I was passing through New York, and I happened to mention the project to a celebrated "lay guru" who used to hold court on the West Side. He swore up and down he could get it printed in India for me. I was therefore persuaded to hand over the valuable negatives to him, upon his solemn promise that the reprints would be distributed for free.

Long story short, he sold the negatives to an Indian reprint house, nobody got anything for free, and he has been taking in royalties ever since. The thing is, when I was masking the negatives, I put in a little "secret sign." The Indian printers didn't stop to consider what it was, so every single copy printed from these negatives can be readily identified.

Funny little thing called greed.

Now we have the Internet, and I suppose the only righteous thing to do would be to scan in Grammar of the Tibetan Language. The first edition is Calcutta, 1834, so the work is public domain.

However, we really don't need to worry so much, because these days we have people who have taken Tibetan calligraphy to heights Csoma de Koros could only imagine. Because I have observed that a number of visitors to this blog come in search of calligraphy resources, let me point you to a list of links at Himalayan Art Resources, the gallery at Tashi Mannox's site, and an introduction to the work of a man with a beautiful mind: the venerable Andrew West.

While we are on the subject of rare books (well, not entirely off topic), I found this when I was cleaning out my library. This is the original 1919 edition of Kazi Dawasamdup's pioneering effort, published at Calcutta University. This old veteran has taken a beating through the years, but you know... it could still come in handy from time to time. Better keep it with all the other books I can't bring myself to toss out.

No, that is unfortunately not 8th century Sogdian woven silk in the background.
That is 21st century recycled cotton from India, purchased at Target, imported
at enormous cost in fossil fuel so that Americans can do their part to halt global warming.

All of the above notwithstanding -- herewith one more famous note to the cowardly publishers who haunt this blog like naughty children at the cookie jar: time for a new book on Tibetan calligraphy by multiple authors. You lot had better learn to take these suggestions seriously. The digital age is in full swing, and the paper/ink paradigm doesn't look well at all.

Keywords: Tibetan calligraphy, Buddhist calligraphy, Tibetan Buddhist calligraphy, cowardly publishers, global warming, Kazi, really useful Hungarians, textiles, and Tuesday.

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3 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

I would have swore that was 8th century Sogdian silk.

Editor said...

Well... you know how it is... if you see 8th century Sogdian silk then it is 8th century Sogdian silk... a meditational perspective that seems to apply to everything except girls in bars at closing time

inkessential said...

Tenpa.... just to point out since my new website is up and running, the link you created here, of my old website is no longer in use.