Dreaming of Lhasa
How one performing arts institute is the last bastion of a 600-year-old opera tradition for Tibetan exiles
Tenzin Woeser, all of 26 and a senior artiste at Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), Dharamsala, has the appearance of a fleet-footed boy-next-door. His adroitness as a singer and versatility as a performer is vouched for by most of his teachers and peers. At the Natya Ballet Dance Festival at Sangeet Natak Academy, New Delhi, on 3 December, where he came for a demonstration of Ache Lhamo along with three other performers, Woeser was patently the showstopper. In his red and yellow long-sleeved outer robe, Chupa, paired with sheepskin breeches and white appliquéd boots, Woeser daintily tossed and twirled in a garish mask, flitting between the roles of a warrior, sage and prince with effortless ease in a stage purification dance. It is not surprising that he is considered the best singer at TIPA right now.
In its 56 years of existence, TIPA has been the training ground for over 500 opera artists. For Tibetan exiles, it is the only performing arts institute in the world that is producing virtuosos trained in the endangered art form of Ache Lhamo. There are around 50 students in the current batch.
Ache Lhamo, as we know it today, is a colourful spectacle of dance-drama, accompanied with booming chants, operatic vocalizations and cadences drawn from drums and cymbals. It dramatizes hagiographical stories mined from Tibet’s imperial past, ancient Indian mythology and Jataka folk tales, intertwined with satire in its comic interludes. Performed usually under a grand canopy, with its traditional plots resembling morality plays underlining the triumph of good over evil, Ache Lhamo’s essence is beautifully captured in a 1997 article by Jamyang Norbu as “a theatrical form that combines the relaxed informality of village cricket, the magical world of pantomime, and the open-air eating and drinking of a good picnic".
The art form is widely believed to have started by Thangtong Gyalpo, a revered Tibetan scholar-saint in the 14th century. As per legend, he was once shoved off a boat plying the river Kichyu by a rapacious ferryman while returning from a flower show in Lhasa in central Tibet. The wise old polymath, who was also considered to be an adept civil engineer, decided to build bridges and ferries across the turbulent rivers of Tibet. Gyalpo needed a steady supply of resources to realize his mission. From his labour force, he discovered seven sisters who showed great fluency in singing and dancing and trained them into sophisticated artistes. With the all-women troupe, he travelled the many villages and towns of central Tibet, performing dance-dramas and raising resources. The village folk, mesmerized by the performances, hailed them as, “A che Lhamo" (Sister Goddess). Thanks to the first Lhamo sisters, Gyalpo went on to build some 55 iron chain bridges in his lifetime.
Tenzin Lakhsam, 38, secretary at TIPA, said he has seen the remnants of one of such bridge in Bhutan while he was recounting the beginnings of Ache Lhamo to a rapt audience at the Sangeet Natak Academy, bridging a timespan of more than 600 years when the “classical secular theatre of Tibet" first took shape.
Its revival in exile happened in the late 1950s and the early 60s in Kalimpong, a town in north Bengal that borders Nepal and Bhutan. In 1959, as thousands of Tibetans fled their homes and followed the 14th Dalai Lama to seek refuge in India, Tibetan residents of Kalimpong became extremely anxious for their brethren. They mounted a performing troupe—an eclectic cast of opera performers and musicians from Lhasa, émigré bluebloods and children of Khampa merchants—to collect money to help the overwhelming surge of refugees. The fledgling troupe was later invited in 1960 to become the official performing arts institute of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala.
Titled the Tibetan Historical and Cultural Drama Party then, it was re-christened Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in 1981 (TIPA). Having evolved from teaching florid folk dances and staging wooden “historical" plays in its early days, TIPA is believed to have resurrected Ache Lhamo in its curriculum only in the 1970s. A bonafide Ache Lhamo performer has to be a gifted singer and a bit of a showman. The selected students undergo a rigorous training of at least 12 years in dance, singing and theatre to become part of the institute’s official opera troupe. They travel the world to showcase the unique artistic heritage and are often believed to represent the most “authentic" version of the art form, among the 10 remaining professional exile opera troupes.
Most of TIPA’s graduates are settled abroad. And while many of them, including singer-songwriter Techung, who co-founded the San Francisco-based Chaksampa Tibetan Dance and Opera Company—the most well-known Tibetan opera troupe outside India—have attempted to cultivate a following for Ache Lhamo, there is one name which stands out.
Namgyal Lhamo, based in the Netherlands, is often looked upon as the most “original" exponent of the folk opera today, with her hauntingly deep renditions vividly recalling the wonders of a lost homeland.
Endearingly called “The Nightingale of Tibet", the 60-year-old musician has performed alongside international heavyweights like Beastie Boys, Alanis Morissette and Björk. A wunderkind in her days, spotted at the tender age of 8, she was one of the star performers at TIPA in the 1970s and 1980s, at a time when the institute was witnessing a creative efflorescence of sorts. She played the coveted role of Sukyi Nyima in the eponymously titled play, based on Abhijñānaśākuntalam by Kalidasa.
Ask her about her alma mater, and the affable Namgyal launches into an unceasing torrent of delightful gags and sketches about her opera masters at the venerable institute, “I remember all those stories and I laugh alone," she reminisces over the phone. Her droll memories are unmistakably tinctured with reverence for her mentors who once belonged to illustrious opera companies of independent Tibet. Her fondest recollections are those of her principal teacher, Norbu Tsering, considered one of the greatest professional opera performers in the 20th century. He escaped from a Chinese labour camp to arrive in Kalimpong in 1961 and later joined TIPA as its opera master in late 1960s and trained over 100 artists in his long tenure till 1996. He is believed to have pioneered the revival of Ache Lhamo for Tibetan exiles in India. “He was good-looking and had a great sense of humour. He loved to call me Tchela (elder sister)" Namgyal recalls, adding that he was a great storyteller.
Namgyal clearly remembers one such story—one starry night when Tsering told her how he had met his wife in Lhasa. “He had just wrapped up a performance at the Norbulinka palace in Lhasa and was ready to leave when he was informed that a woman was waiting outside the palace grounds to meet him. The woman was his neighbour and had come to take him home. On their way, they had to cross a river-like waterway. When Tsering started to take off his long boots to cross the stream, the lady asked him not to. Under the luminous sky, she carried him on her back across the gleaming waters.
“He was a teacher, a parent, a friend, a companion, all at the same time," Namgyal says of Tsering who died in 2013.
Namgyal moved to Holland in 1980 after her marriage. She is still going strong with plans to open a training school for Tibetan Opera. “After 14 years of full service (at TIPA), I realized I needed to grow in a different way artistically."
“It’s a bit like Indian doctors. All the best ones are settled abroad," says Samten Dhondup, explaining the crossover of Tibetan opera musicians. The 46-year-old was born in Kathmandu and is the current opera master at TIPA. He enrolled at TIPA in 1988 against the wishes of his father. Today, Dhondup takes great pride in the fact that he is the only certified Tibetan opera instructor in the country. He is also aware of the slow and steady brain drain at TIPA and the sheer inevitability of it. “You don’t earn much money as a refugee in India. If you are a Tipa performer, you are travelling to foreign countries all the time. So if you want to go abroad, TIPA is the place, because later it becomes easier to get a visa. Even if you do the poorest job in America, you get a good salary." A junior artiste at Tipa typically draws a salary of Rs12,000 and senior artistes of Woeser’s calibre anywhere between Rs16,000 and Rs17,000. But Dhondup is in no mood to seek greener pastures. “It’s not a good time to leave TIPA," he says.
Woeser says life at TIPA has become slightly dull now as most of his seniors and batch mates have left. “When I joined in 2004, my batch had 22 students. Most of them have left for foreign shores, leaving only seven of us behind. Most of the instructors from the 1970s and 80s are now in the US and Europe," he says. The inflection in his voice registers a hint of pride in the last sentence. “I don’t feel like leaving TIPA. It has given me everything. But I do feel like taking courses in Indian classical music. I wouldn’t mind singing in Bollywood after TIPA. Let’s see," says Woeser, whose favourite singers are Kailash Kher and Arijit Singh.
Born in Nagpur, Woeser joined TIPA on the insistence of his father who was born enroute to Arunachal Pradesh when his grandmother fled Tibet. Singing and dancing now comes easy to Woeser. “But I sometimes wish I had completed formal schooling, so I could speak better English to be able to communicate with foreigners inquiring about our opera tradition," he adds after some thought.
For now, he is excited about a new play TIPA scripted last year, called the Life of Buddha. TIPA’s official troupe will perform this opera in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, on 4 January for the first time, a special occasion for the participants, considering the significance of the town where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. “I play Buddha’s brother. Mera role thoda gussa wala hai, woh mera liye achha hai (My character is kind of dark and brooding, which is great)," he says.