Preserving Bhutan’s Traditional Arts and Educating Disadvantaged Children

Choki Traditional Art School supports the community

In this new series on Khyentse Foundation grantees, we highlight selected dharma projects supported by Ashoka or Trisong grants through open application.

In this new series on Khyentse Foundation grantees, we highlight selected dharma projects supported by Ashoka or Trisong grants through open application.

In a small but colorful classroom, a dozen students are painting. An array of Buddhist deities and other figures are taking shape on canvas, their specifications mandated by a tradition going back hundreds of years. These are students in the lhadi (painting) program at Choki Traditional Art School (CTAS), a formal private training institute near Thimphu recognized and certified by the then Ministry of Labour and Human Resources, Royal Government of Bhutan. Both male and female students are enrolled in the school.

“The school has provided me the opportunity to develop myself and now, not only am I able to support my family but I can also give back to the school by supporting the school as the chairman of the Alumni Association.” — Thinley Dorji, CTAS graduate and chairman, Choki Traditional Art School Alumni Association

Established in 1999, CTAS provides a free, full-time education for underprivileged youths interested in learning a selection of Bhutan’s traditional Thirteen Arts and Crafts (the Zorig Chusum, namely bamboo craft, calligraphy, carving, clay sculpture, embroidery, masonry, metal casting, painting, papermaking, silver- and goldsmithery, tailoring, weaving, and woodwork/carpentry) and who would not otherwise receive a formal education. Its late founder, Dasho Choki Dorji (1936–2022), had helped set up the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu’s Kawang Jangsa neighborhood in the early 1970s, where he served as head of the Painting Department. Following his retirement from the civil service, he was approached by a number of disadvantaged children who wanted to study the arts but were unable to obtain admission to the national institute due to its qualification requirements. Dasho Choki Dorji began to teach the children in his house, providing them with free room and board. As word spread and more and more students arrived, the idea to establish a small school was conceived.

The school’s dual mission is to promote the kingdom’s traditional arts and crafts and to improve the employability of its students in the market. The school presently provides programs in lhadi (painting, on both wood and canvas), patra (carving), tshemdrup (embroidery), tshemzo (tailoring), and thagzo (weaving). During their first 2 years, students study traditional rimo drawing, the foundation for more specialized study. As a supplementary program they are also taught basic English, math, Dzongkha, and IT, with cultural activities, sports, classes in farming/gardening and green values, and lessons on the Driglam Namzha (Bhutan’s code of etiquette) on offer as well.

“When they first come to the school, the students are shy, full of anxiety, and depressed, with social and family issues,” says Sonam Choki, the principal of CTAS. “When they complete their program at the school, we see them as a completely new person. They are equipped with skills, more confident, optimistic, and most importantly, instilled with values that make them a good person—kind, considerate, dependable, reliable, and trustworthy.”

Today, CTAS has a capacity of 160 students. The sale of their work, which previously covered 30 percent of the school’s operational budget, ceased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the school received a Khyentse Foundation Ashoka grant to cover food, lodging, tuition, and course materials for 40 of the students. The foundation is striving to pay particular attention to traditionally Buddhist places such as Bhutan in its scope of activity.

So far, 323 students (218 boys and 105 girls) have graduated from the school, with two levels of certification. 223 students have completed the entire course and been awarded a “Diploma Certificate,” while 100 have completed the basic level and been awarded “Certificate Level,” enabling them to find reasonable employment. Overall, 98 percent of the graduates are gainfully employed. Some work as painters, carvers, embroiderers, and weavers in art galleries; others become entrepreneurs who open their own galleries or handicraft stores. CTAS graduates’ work can also be seen in monasteries, temples, and dzong (fortress-monasteries) throughout Bhutan.

CTAS Alumni Project, Pema Gatshel Dzong, Eastern Bhutan.

To commemorate its 25th anniversary and in recognition of a shared vulnerability, in October 2023 CTAS partnered with WWF Bhutan to celebrate International Snow Leopard Day. Like the Thirteen Arts and Crafts, the snow leopard—a culturally and ecologically significant animal in Bhutan—is today under threat. The school decided to use this synergy to bring visibility to this endangered species, as well as to the ecosystem in which both coexist.

As such, CTAS has adopted the snow leopard as its official mascot and created an animated video, Cheychey The Snow Leopard, featuring snow leopard characters. Through this animation, the snow leopards communicate the school’s mission to empower underprivileged youth with the knowledge and skills to protect and promote Bhutan’s traditional arts, while providing a platform of visibility for the snow leopard aimed at children and youth. The school also launched a comic book about Cheychey at the October event and held a student art competition on the snow leopard theme. Looking ahead, they aspire to create sequels for Cheychey, including videos and books that chronicle his journey in mastering each of the Thirteen Arts and Crafts.

“Our mission is to continue with the [school] project for many years down the line as we see tremendous benefits both at individual level and [in the] community at large,” says Sonam Choki. “The unwavering support received from well-wishers and supporters has enabled the school to empower countless underprivileged youths in Bhutan and to help preserve the country’s rich culture and traditions. We are immensely grateful to all our supporters and to Khyentse Foundation for their grant when the school was faced with such an immense challenge during COVID-19.”

Featured photo above: First-year painting student Lacho Om from Punakha, Western Bhutan, hopes to become a professional painter and takes pride in pursuing a career that is male-dominated.

All photos courtesy Choki Traditional Art School.