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Halloo! When I found out I could go to med school with a Humanities degree with an Ethnomusicology emphasis, I almost peed myself. Here's to me holding it in.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Happy Belated Birthday, Tenzin Gyatso! Part 1!

Note: As this is kind of a summary of what I've learned about music, performing, and culture in Bylakuppe, I'm posting half now and half later. Stay tuned for the update!

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had the great honor and privilege of performing at the Dalai Lama's birthday celebration in Bylakuppe. Before you think I am cooler than I am, no, His Holiness was not present in person. He lives most of the time in Dharamsala, so he would naturally attend his own birthday party there. All of the Tibetan settlements throughout India, and the Tibetan pockets and families in the rest of the world, hold some kind of celebration and puja wishing His Holiness many more years of health and leadership. It's more than just a birthday party, too - it's a chance for Tibetan solidarity and communion, for uniting around a single person who is a symbol of the cause, culture, and current political climate. The school where I spent most of my time these last three months or so feverishly prepared for the event, with special performance groups being organized and practice going late into the night.

The morning of July 6th was strangely calm, comparing it to other experiences I have had in performing communities on "opening day," so to speak. Most of the performers back stage unhurriedly donned their costumes, laughed and joked, and plucked through the songs they had prepared. There is a spirit of teamwork that accompanies these kinds of events in Bylakuppe, as to even don a chuba (see my red one above) takes at least two people if it is to be done properly. I was the only solo performer, so the eleven other groups took comfort in having teammates and not being the center of attention, which is typical of most of the Tibetan performing arts - very few solos are seen in traditional performance.
The crowd you see here, which was probably 1500-2000 strong, surrounds the back three sides of the stage. Something that contributed to my calmness about the whole thing, and which I'm guessing plays a role in the relaxed attitude of all the performers, is the physical environment of this kind of performance. Everybody is there to see the performance and support the performers, because the point of the occasion is group support for His Holiness, so the whole crowd and the performers face a stand with a small group of important religious and political individuals which would have, were he not in Dharamsala, seated the Dalai Lama himself. The point is that the other performers and myself were singing and dancing for one person who was a few thousand miles away while facing a group of twenty or so people who were also there in support of that one person. The guru-disciple relationship is key, central, essential, irreplaceable, and otherwise important in Tibetan Buddhism and culture, and the setup of the stage reflected that. One is to look upon one's guru as possessing all of the attributes of the Buddha, and is to visualise the guru in meditation and during one's daily business. This assists in unveiling the Tathagatagarbha, or the inner pure essence which everyone has/is, even while recognizing the faults, insecurities, and humanity of the current physical form of the guru. The Dalai Lama is a man, whose health often takes him to the same hospital any middle-class  sick person in Himachal Pradesh would go to, but he is the embodiment of Avalokiteshvara (Skt.) or Chenrezig (Tib.), the bodhisattva of compassion, and as such has uncovered much more of his inner purity than most humans ever will. The incredible respect Tibet has for its spiritual leader must be seen to be believed. Of course there are splinter groups and Dalai Lama-haters, even in Bylakuppe, but the numbers are generally so small as to be negligible. Bylakkuppe loves the Dalai Lama.
Old and young, monks and laypeople, sat on the ground and milled around the lawn for the better part of four hours listening to speeches (many were irritated at the long-windedness of the main speaker, who blew through his time slot with gusto and panache) and watching the performances, filling themselves with food sold by local fundraisers and Indian vendors and helping the cripples with donations of a rupee or two. The performances were what everybody came for, and the crowd was most supportive.
Lori got Namgyal to get the attention of this old Apala, who was unspeakably cool.
Namgyal, my beautiful wife (dig that chuba! Coming to a sacrament service near you!), and myself with the crowd.
The stage.
Waiting in the wings.
China does a dragon dance, Tibet does snow lion and yak dances. Dig.

At the TCV SOS school the next day.