Nancy In Tilokpur

Nancy in Tilokpur

Giving And Taking, Fall, 2013, New Monastery
By Nancy Nahm Kessler

What a grand adventure this was.  A true learning, giving and receiving exchange adventure.

The goal was to teach yoga and art to the student nuns of New Monastery at Tilokpur, India,

It was an honor to be welcomed into their community for the opportunity to engage in this meaningful project.

After months of detailed thought, planning, and packing I was off to Himachal Pradesh, India by plane to Delhi and Amritsar for some informative sightseeing; then continuing over land.

I was driven across the Punjab and up into the humidity of September, to the rural foothills of the Himalayan mountains and the monastic community of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns.

Finally, suddenly, I was there.

Young anis were waiting for me. With big smiles lots of hugs and laughter, I was warmly surrounded, greeted and welcomed.  This open, willing joyfulness was to be the tone for the months to follow.

With the help of three adult anis a classroom in a newly constructed wing was cleaned up for use as an art studio classroom.  What a wonderful space it is, on the second floor with high ceilings: light and ventilation throughout the day, large windows framing views of snow-covered mountains to the east and monastery gardens to the south and west.

 We unpacked art supplies, set up shelves, made lists, plans, schedules, and were ready to start classes within a week.

I quickly made myself at home in the Monastery guest house. Within sight and sound of the Temple and art classroom I was three minutes from door to door. Each afternoon I could hear the nuns' hours-long chanting coming from the temples' open doors through my open windows. I could watch the garden being tended and harvested, enjoy the sounds of youngsters playing cricket, see walkers and visitors coming and going through the main gate.  Every day so many things going on - a monastery is a dynamic community!

What a pleasure it was to go down to the kitchen for meals, served on a regular schedule.  I was treated as an honored guest. The kitchen was, as in most families, a busy hub of activity.  From my seat at the small kitchen table I could meet with senior nuns and their visitors.

Although language was a major barrier to conversation, there were smiles and gestures and a true sense of fellowship.

I observed the rhythm of the weekly rotation of groups of anis as they chopped and served vegetables, rice, dal, fruit and tea, and as they washed up the large cooking pots and finally cleaned the floors.

This was also the place to become acquainted with the resident canine population and their amusing antics of hierarchy and subjugation.

It was at dinner that I would be visited by Kunsang, the one nun who spoke English with me, who could answer my questions and transmit messages.

Sitting at the kitchen table was my time for relaxation and amusement. It was nourishment in so many ways.

New Monastery, Tilokpur, dedicated in 2000 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is situated on an expanse of eastward sloping farm land surrounded by cultivated fields and a scattering of houses. There is a rapidly flowing waterway at the lowest eastern border, a patch of forest on the south, and ancient-looking stone walls surrounding most of the rest of the compound. There are three large, main  buildings constructed in a U formation with the Temple at its center.  Its massive double doors open to the east and the sunrise light reflecting off the icy mountain tops around Dharamsala, India.

We met for Yoga on the polished wooden floors of the Monastery Temple each morning at 6:30.

We learned simple yogic breathing coordinated with moving and steady yoga poses; some stretching and relaxation.
We kept the repertory limited, relying on repetition for learning a routine that could be followed after my departure.

As class was ending at 7:00 AM we turned east to see the first golden rays of sunlight striking distant jagged mountain tops, clouds with silver linings and skies of softest pink.  Every morning we sat silently in awe, together.

This awesome environment of sun, sky, water, and plants and animals became the content for our drawings and paintings.

I happily spent the major portion of my days and nights in the art room, planning, preparing, teaching and mentoring.  I was seldom alone.

Art classes were held each morning and afternoon.  Most other times I held the studio open for those who chose to come on their own.  It became a fun place to hang out.

There was a group of younger anis who came together and devoured any impromptu activity I could come up with.  They liked folding and flying paper airplanes or building and gluing colorful paper hats or cartoon drawing with markers in the manner of Keith Haring. They liked to sing and twirl and dance in the big open space of that sun filled room.

Then there were a few special anis who came for the silence and chance to work one on one on their individual projects.  These moments are my most sacred memories.

While students were learning skills of careful observation, use and care of art materials, and techniques of drawing and painting, I was learning how to teach without speaking their language, without a chalk board or tables or chairs.

Art communicates, so I drew as I spoke in English, sitting on the floor.  I drew and they copied.  They excelled at drawing what they saw.  So we started with direct observation of plants and insects from their environment, for scientific drawings, labeled in English.

One morning I happened upon a praying mantis, put it in a jar and gave it to one of the anis asking if she could find another.  The anis arrived for class with several more!  They made excellent detailed drawings that day and for many classes to follow.  We used many things; snails that left slimy wavy trail lines, marigolds that were in bloom all around the grounds, plants and seed pods from their garden and vegetables from their storage room.  We drew the human skeleton from anatomy book pictures.  They used lead and colored pencils, magic markers and chalk.  Later we would paint with water colors.  They learned to see and use axial symmetry, radial lines, spirals, concentric circles, grids and patterns in gradation of size and color and much much more.

The anis had learned to function as a graceful, productive group in the art classroom.  The next step was to
help them to see for themselves and create without copying .

Using big pieces of white chalk we went out into the newly constructed, unfinished, unused hallways and drew large skeletons, all over, up and down the long concrete surfaces.  There were sixty to one hundred attempts at drawing anatomically proportionate skeletons to walk among, smile and laugh at for weeks to come.  They were inventively leaping, climbing, twisted.  Some with large eyes or strange features.  We all had a ball.

Eventually we were able to move to larger, freer forms of clouds and flowing water and the bigger landscape around us.  For this we used a remarkable resource, a magnificent mural painting that frames the Monastery's Temple doors.  Done in the traditional style of Tibetan painting, on a very large scale, the mural tells familiar Buddhist stories. By looking through view-finders, students isolated painted examples of land, clouds or water. They made drawings that were later translated into large expressive watercolor paintings.

The mural also helped them see their own Temple and its surrounding landscape as subjects for paintings.  One of our last projects was a sweeping view of the Temple with its hills, water, sky and clouds.

 The anis took to watercolor painting like they were born to do it.  Even though they were using small brushes they were able to achieve large free-forms full of momentum.  It was so exciting!

The humidity of summer had given way to crisp days and cold nights.  Back in Maryland fall had come and gone and the holidays were approaching.

We had all these wonderful drawings and paintings.  It was time to show them.

Our Student Art Show was organized for a Sunday afternoon, invitations made and sent out, refreshments planned.  With lots of glue and tape and efficient teamwork, the classroom became an impressive art gallery.

As a part of the visual art show we also prepared a short dramatization of the water cycle, which had been a major theme for our work.  With enthusiastic gusto; using gesture, dance movement, and rhythmic percussion the anis told the story of the environment they lived so closely with.  They did a fabulous job!

This was a day to remember.

These are months I will cherish, always.

I am thankful for the experience of living closely within the community, for connecting daily through yoga practice, and for
making art a learning and expressive activity for so many beautiful young people.

I am very pleased to leave them with a room filled with their own paintings and drawings, their own museum, and a place to continue to be creative.