Sporting a pair of brown trousers, a grey shirt and a matching grey pleat jacket over it, Karma Wangdi, popularly known as Asha Kama, sits on the balcony of the VAST building, sunning himself. His eyes have a gentle glow and his voice has a softness to it that immediately connects to those around him.
An artist to the core, 42 years old Asha Kama has been a pioneer of youth related activities engaging them in community building activities while stimulating their creative and leadership instincts, and inspiring them to achieve their potential.
Asha Kama was born in Dagana but spent his childhood in Punakha where his parents had settled along with him and his four elder sisters. He had to take up his share of family responsibilities such as ploughing the fields and collecting firewood.
But what he remembers most about his childhood is his father teaching him to use his hands to create things. According to Asha Kama, his father was skilled artisan who used to make the best arrows in the village. He would sometimes barter the arrows with young men for their labour. He also has vivid memories of his family migrating between upper and lower Punakha according to the seasons.
“Those were good times” he reminisces.
When he was nine years old, Asha Kama joined the erstwhile Thimphu Public School as boarder and he has some fun memories of his school years. He was never academically inclined, and he chuckles when he recalls the time he scored a zero in maths.
But the silver lining to the cloud was the presence of an art teacher in the school who was to play a major role in his life. Discovering Asha Kama’s skill with the paint brush, this Bengali teacher started to give him regular training and guidance.
By the time he reached class 8, he was 18 years old, and he flunked the final exams. The school principal gave him the option of either continuing in the school or dropping out. He opted for the latter because by then he had already decided to become either an artist or an architect. He bid farewell to school, but not without a letter of recommendation from the school about the artistic abilities.
Subsequently, he was selected by the government to study at an art school in India, but he did not met the required academic qualification. As a result he was enrolled in the Fine Arts Center in Thimphu where he learnt thangka painting, embroidery, wood turning, clay sculpting and basket weaving. He stayed at the center for ten long years later on working as a product designer.
After his stint there, he underwent a printing and graphic arts course in India. On his return he joined the Handicrafts Development Center where they made items like greeting cards and wall hangers and did screen painting.
Later on, Asha Kama was transferred to the Development Support Communication Division (DSCD) under the information Department as a graphic artist. Here he helped in designing teaching aids like slides, audio-visual productions and graphic illustrations.
Then came the highlight of his career. He was sent to purse a degree in design in the United Kingdom where stayed for three years. After his return, he continued to work for the DSCD for two more years until it was dissolved.
For the next two years, he free-lanced doing some work for the World Wildlife Funds, and UNICEF designing teaching aids arranging exhibitions.
And then finally came his ultimate calling – he with three other friends, formed the now famous VAST (Voluntary Artists’ Studio, Thimphu). It started as an initiative to encourage children who were interested in art, and the support to pursue their interest.
“I thought it was time to give back to society – especially the lost children,” says Asha Kama. “We embarked on an endeavor to design activities that involved children in understanding nature and culture, made them more responsible and connected them to youth related issue.”
But it was not without problems. Asha Kama said though there were lots of innovative ideas and concepts in place, lack of resources was and still continues to be a major constraint.
He feels that after all he has been through, he has now come to point where he has to take “some serious decision.”
“As an artist, you have to create works of art, and I am becoming more of a social activist than an artist,” he ruminates,” I need to strike a balance because I am not doing justice to my art.”
He says he is most happy when he rolls up his sleeves and starts working on a canvas. He knew he was good with his hands and had thus always wanted to become an artist.
“My friends tried to dissuade me because at that time with the qualification I had, I could have got a good post in the civil service, but my father told me that I did not have to listen to anybody.”
His inspiration in life has been his parents and other family members who taught him the value of being a good human being.
“My cousin brother, whom I idolized, was a perfect human being,” he remembers.
Asked if he has any regrets in life, he says he has none except that he misses his parents terribly and wishes they were still alive.
In his work, he is inspired by texture in nature, buildings and temples to which he adds a touch of philosophy. “My art comprises emotional movements such as when I paint the wind horse or portray dancing,” he says. He tries to avoid the brush and uses his hands when he wants to give full vent to his creativity. Having used the brush as a thangka painter had restricted him since it was more concerned with technicalities.
He believes that thangka painting is a form of meditation and prayer which should be under-taken only by those who are pure and prepared. Otherwise it gives the painter a feeling of guilt.
Asha Kama feels that there is a connection between spirituality and art. According to him, one can be spiritual without being religious. Painting, he says, not only helps him remain calm but also to understand himself.
His wish at present is to create at least ten paintings which he will want to keep for himself.
Apart from painting, Asha Kama also loves collecting hats, knives and books. Indeed, he is an avid reader who loves Italo Calvino and R. K. Narayan. He also listens to traditional music as well as to pop and rock bands such as the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Eagles, and also to jazz and blues.
His biggest strength, he says, is his trust in people which is also his biggest weakness apart from the fact that he takes things too easy.
But all said and done, his crusade for the youth is what keeps him going. “It is everybody’s responsibility to guide the youth,” he says, “We need to create space for the young people because we can’t rely on the old system of education.”
Asha Kama has a long list of achievement but what makes him really proud is that fact that he managed to stick to what he wanted to be and do.
Asha Kama has participated in many international art exhibitions and hopes to showcase the works of upcoming Bhutanese artists at the international level.
– BY PEKY SAMAL (Original story in The Journalist 19th Dec 2010)