REGINA, Canada, 21 March 2013
On 14 March 2013, Tibetans lost a superstar, who was not only a celebrated performer of Ache Lhamo in pre-1959 Tibet, but also who devoted himself to preserving the Kyomolung tradition of Ache Lhamo in the exile community and blessing us with his knowledge and guidance for generations to come.
Norbu Tsering was born in Lhasa, the first of five sons and a daughter. His parents were from Chongay in Lhokha. The town of Chongay had their own Lhamo group called the “Dhoptop Lhamo.” His father was a very talented performer who excelled in singing namthar.
Since his father was ordered by the Tibetan government to join the Kyomolung Lhamo group, the family moved to Lhasa, where both parents joined the Kyomolung Lhamo. At the age of eight, Norbu Tsering was a handsome child and quite talented. One day a man named Geghen Tsema Ganpa recommended that he be enrolled in the Lhamo group.
That year His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was not yet enthroned, and the country was ruled by Reting Regent. During his regency, the Shoton was performed at the Reting Labrang (estate), where Norbu Tsering made his debut as the young Guru Rinpoche in the story of Pema Woebar. He entered the stage carried by the celestial fairies and wrapped in a lotus blossum. When he reached the center of the stage, the lotus suddenly opened and he sang two namthars. This part was special and enjoyed by the entire audience, including Reting Regent himself. Norbu Tsering remembered receiving gifts and scarves from the Regent.
The next year, at the age of nine, Norbu became one of the Ringa (khandroma) dancers. He was the last in the line since he was the youngest and smallest of the dancers. At the age of ten, he was given the starring role of Lhasay Gyalpo in Dowa Sangmo. At eleven, he took the role of Saychung in Sukyi Nyima, and at twelve, he performed the role of Pema Woeber. After the age of fifteen, he performed the female roles of Sukyi Nyima, Dowa Sangmo, and others.
When Norbu Tsering was seventeen, his father passed away, and he was left with his mother, four brothers, a sister, and his wife to look after. The female character roles propelled him into stardom. The aristocratic families, government officers, and high lamas became his close friends, and his life improved rapidly.
In 1956 the Chinese invited His Holiness and the Tibetan delegation to Peking. The Kashag office selected twelve artistes from Kyomolung to join the Bhoekyi Dhoegar Tsokpa (the Tibetan National Dance Group) accompanying the Tibetan delegation. Of the twelve, five were Norbu Tsering and his brothers. It took them four months from the day of their departure to return to Lhasa.
After their return to Tibet, Norbu Tsering began to perform the roles of most of the major characters in Lhamo such as Tsongpon Norsang, Daway Senge, Simbu Ama, Kala Wangpo, and others.
During the 1959 uprising, he was captured on the battlefield, along with four other artists, by the Chinese. They were put in Nangchen Bhang prison. However, the Chinese wanted the Kyomolung to perform in the Shoton Festival just as in the past, using the same format and the same pageantry as if the performance were to take place before His Holiness on the Norbu Lingka stage.
Since their Opera Master Tashi-la could not refuse this demand, he asked the Chinese to release the five Kyomolung artistes imprisoned in the Nangchen Bhang prison. He argued that the Shoton Festival could not be performed without those five missing members. So they were released, and they presented the 1960 Shoton Festival in the Norbu Lingka after spending five or six months in prison.
In 1961, Norbu Tsering and his wife and decided to escape to India. They eventually settled in Kalimpong, where he spent four to five years teaching Lhamo to the Kalimpong Lhamo troupe. In 1965, the Director of the Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society (now Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts — TIPA) met Norbu Tsering in Darjeeling and presented him with a letter from the Tibetan Government and His Holiness requesting that he come to Dharamshala to teach Lhamo at the Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society. Norbu Tsering felt that he should take this opportunity to serve the Tibetan Government and His Holiness, and, therefore, accepted the offer. He found that he had to start from the very beginning in teaching Lhamo to these artistes. From 1965 until 1996, Norbu Tsering taught Lhamo tirelessly to many talented students.
In 1975, the Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society went on their first world tour. The troupe performed Pema Woeber and Dances from the Roof of the World in such venues as the Theatre an der Wien (Vienna, Austria), the Holland Festival, the Smithsonian Museum, and the Sydney Opera House. Although several proposed venues for the tour were cancelled in response to Chinese pressure and performances, the Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society gave numerous performances across the United States and Canada despite Chinese protests. In this way, Norbu Tsering introduced Tibetan opera to the world stage. This first world tour was followed by many others.
Norbu Tsering passed away on 14 March 2013 at the age of 86 in Delek Hospital. He is survived by his wife, Tsamcho-la, and their six children.
About the author
Sonam Tashi, aka Acho Danny, a former TIPA alumni and a founder of Chaksampa Tibetan opera troupe, is a traditional Tibetan artiste living in Regina, Canada. He can be contacted at: achodanny(a)gmail.com.