MCLEOD GANJ, India, 18 March 2013
The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) (TibetanArts.org) holds Shoton [Tibetan opera festival] every year, alternating the venue between Dharamshala and one of the Tibetan settlements, such as Bylakuppe, Kollegal, Orissa, Mundgod, etc. This year, the 18th opera festival in exile was held in Kollegal in South India. It is my duty as opera master to take part in every event — but because of personal problems I was unable to go this time. I had to remain behind in McLeod Ganj for one month, and was very sad about this. But I came to realise the strength of my karmic connection to my master, my Ghen la (teacher in Tibetan) — because I stayed behind, I had the fortune to be able to serve him in his illness, and was able to go to his cremation on Saturday, 16 March 2013. He passed away on Thursday.
Norbu Tsering la was the greatest opera master in the history of Ache Lhamo (Tibetan opera — literal meaning “sister goddess”). He was born in 1927 in Lhasa, Tibet, and was in Ache Lhamo his entire life. His father was an opera performer, and was the most famous female character performer. His five brothers were all opera performers. They were all in the famous opera company Kyomolung pa. In old Tibet, only four of the twelve opera companies could perform at Norbulingka, and Kyomolung troupe was one of them.
I heard that some years before 1959, the Tibetan government in Lhasa sent Ghen Norbu la to Kalimpong (an important centre of Tibetan trade) to study. Ghen la was so popular and loved so much that people made a song for him:
Lapa has gone to India,
That was an order by the government of Tibet.
Folks don’t you worry as he will return,
Whining may only put obstacles on his life.
Ghen la’s stage name was “Lapa”. I do not know exactly how he got that name. One version is that after performing the role of a young prince, Ghen la got the nickname “Lapa” as he had to sing a song starting with “La-yi …” This “La-yi” became “Lapa” later on. Another version is that when he was very young, he was imitating older artistes and since he couldn’t really sing properly, he sang “La.. la.. la.. ” and not the real words. So he was called “Lapa”, the one who sings “La.. la.. “
Norbu Tsering la had fought with Chinese invaders in 1959 in Lhasa, and afterwards he was captured for his resistance and imprisoned for eight months. He was later freed because the Chinese authorities planned a Shoton in 1960 in which he was asked to perform. In 1961, he escaped to India. After a few years in exile he started teaching Tibetan opera in 1967 in Kalimpong. After some years people in Dharamshala found out that he was there, and invited him here to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), which was then called Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society. He became opera master, and taught 12 different traditional operas at TIPA.
Norbu la was a story teller, and a very kind teacher. His students were like his family, and everyone liked him. He was not serious in class, and out of class he was like family, like everyone’s father. He would always give advice and teach. All of his family lived at TIPA, including his six children, one son and the rest daughters. The son and the oldest daughter became his students and TIPA artistes. The son is now living in Toronto, and the daughter in Paris.
I can never say enough about the contribution of Norbu Tsering la to exile Tibetan culture — it is so huge. Tibetan opera is the root of Tibetan art and culture — even His Holiness says this. Ache Lhamo is purely and only Tibetan; it was not taken from any other culture. Without Norbu la’s work, it would not even exist any more. His has been the biggest contribution by far, by anyone, to the preservation of Tibetan culture.
In independent Tibet there were 12 big opera companies. There were four big ones: Gyangara, Chungpa, Shangpa, and Kyomolung (the biggest company), and eight smaller ones. Because of Norbu la, there are now ten opera companies in exile in India. There is also one in San Francisco, ChaksamPa) [Iron Bridge], formed by ex-TIPA artistes.
Ache Lhamo, which is also called Lhamo, is the creation of a 15th-century Tibetan saint Thangtong Gyalpo. It is said that the saint wanted to build iron bridges over many big rivers in Tibet. He started the Ache Lhamo to raise funds to build the bridges. Some of the bridges are said to be in use even today. It is also said that Thangtong Gyalpo created Ache Lhamo to impart Buddhist teachings through the performing arts.
I was born in exile, and have never seen Tibet. I started at TIPA in 1977 at the age of 11, and have been performing there my whole life. I eventually became a teacher. When Ghen la retired in 1996, all the masters had a meeting to decide on his successor. To make the decision, each person speaks, and Ghen la spoke for myself, Sonam Phuntsok. So I became the next opera master at TIPA, with the honour of following in the footsteps of Norbu Tsering la, in 1997.
When Ghen la retired, his wish was to keep the Tibetan opera alive. Many of Ghen la’s students wrote their condolences on Facebook. I want to tell my fellow artistes this: Ok, people die, then you pray, and then after a week or so you forget. What I want to ask of you is this: After you pray, and you miss him for a while … then, honour his wish. It is the responsibility of all who have studied under him, never to forget anything that he told you. It is the responsibility of our younger generation, to keep what he has given, preserve what he taught us, and to pass it on to the new generation.
My greatest wish is to take his art forward, and to perform one time on the stage of Norbulingka in Tibet, where my Ghen la once performed. That is my dream.
About the author
Sonam Phuntsok is the present opera master of TIPA.