The struggle to keep alive the Tibetan culture

Dalai Lama at Jamia Millia Islamia Pix: Gargi Nim

About 50 years ago, the 14th Dalai Lama and leader of Tibet took a long arduous journey to cross the Himalayas and come to India. As Chinese pressure was mounting in Tibet, this monk knew that his people would fight till death to defend him. A strict adherent of peace and non violence, he chose to escape to India, to prevent any loss of Tibetan lives for his sake.

The Dalai Lama has since then stressed on the “middle path” as a solution to the Tibetan issue within the constitutional framework of the People’s Republic of China. The middle way approach aims to achieve greater autonomy within China through dialogue.

Some Tibetan exiles – particularly youths – have increasingly questioned the Dalai Lama's methods and goals. They are pushing for greater agitation worldwide to force China's hand. Many also want a fully independent Tibet.

However, the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, has managed to keep his fragmented flock united by averting a split. He has furthered the Tibetan cause in many subtle and ingenious ways.

Well-directed leadership

The role of the 73-year-old monk in preserving and promoting the Tibetan culture has been phenomenal. Dalai Lama has been the unifying force for all the Tibetans.

One of the first things that the Tibetan leader did on coming to India in 1959, was to set up an institute to preserve and promote the Tibetan culture. Therefore, at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), Dharamsala, the efforts of the Tibetans in exile are geared towards their rich ancient culture and its preservation.

Lobsang Samden, Art Director of the Institute, feels that preserving culture is even more important than independence. He says “Culture is the identity of any nation and freedom without culture has no meaning”. Almost everyone at TIPA echo the same feelings. They strive to keep their culture alive, not only because it gives them satisfaction but also because they believe in something much larger than themselves.

Samten Dhondup was born on the way when his parents were fleeting to India from Tibet. He is now an opera instructor at the institute. Early in his career, he had the option of comfortably settling in America with an offer of a handsome salary. However, he chose to do his bit for the Tibetan cause. “Here I get a meager salary but there is satisfaction, of doing something for my country.” His efforts help to keep Lhamo, the ancient dance form of Tibet alive.

“Manipulation of the Tibetan traditions”

The stories of the Lhamo or the Tibetan opera are ancient traditional tales based on Buddhist teachings. The Tibetans complain that in their country, the stories are getting manipulated by the Chinese. Mr. Dhondup says, “The people in Tibet have Chinese instructors. They portray our kings as cruel and torturous, and show to the people that this is ancient Tibet.” The theatre instructor asserts that even the techniques of performance of the Tibetan opera are different.

The music in Tibet is also not spared from Chinese influence, say the members of TIPA. Tenzing Phuntsok, a musician at the institute makes the distinction of the Tibetan music from that of the Chinese. “The Chinese sing like an orchestra using a lot of waves. We, unlike the Chinese have single notes and melodies”, he says.

The members of TIPA make sure that even instruments used in the Institute are made according to the traditional Tibetan style. “In Tibet, under Communist China, the instrument makers have to work at gun point”, says Tenzing Thinley, instrument maker at TIPA. “Here, at TIPA by the grace of the Indian Government, we can work according to the traditional culture of Tibet.” He also lays down the details of how the shapes and music of Chinese instruments are different.

The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts has systematically kept the original art forms of Tibet alive and pure. This is one of the reasons that Dharamsala has earned the reputation of being the “Little Lhasa”.

The effort of the Dalai Lama has unquestionably been most successful here.

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