Ache Lhamo

Sonam Dorji, 12 years, Class 5
Rinzin Norbu, 12 years, Class 4
Sangay Dorji, 12 years, Class 4
Namgay Chojay, 13 years, Class 4
Thinley Norbu, 11 years, Class 4

These five students go to Monmola community primary school, in distant Serti gewog, in the Shingkhar Lauri region. And boy, they can dance. I met them during my recent tour to Jumotshangkha, in the eastern-most part of our country. And they honoured me with an active performance of the very lively Ache Lhamo chham. 

The students say they took over a month to learn the historic Ache Lhamoi chham. They were taught by two farmers, Lobsang and Yeshey, both renowned dancers themselves, before and after school every day. The farmer-teachers proudly explained that they volunteered their services to promote their culture and heritage, and to add value to their children’s education.

The Ache Lhamoi chham, one of the teachers told me, has over 100 separate movements which would take several days to perform. What the students showcased was just one movement, and an abbreviated one at that. Enjoy…

I’ve lifted the following description of the Ache Lhomoi dance  from the Asia-Pacific Database on Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was written by Lopen Phuntsho Gyeltshen of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts.

Ache Lhamo or Ashe Lhamo is regarded more as drama rather than dance, but many scholars accept it as dance-drama flourished in Bhutan since a long time back.

The characteristics
Ache Lhamo literally means Sister Goddess or Lady Goddess. This is performed by herdsmen once a year in keeping with the local customs. It tells or relates stories of people famed for their piety and miraculous achievements be it spiritual or temporal. The repertoire of this art was not very broad and the style of presentation cultivated by each group varies, although the overall performance of the general framework is the same. The dance by one man and a woman is accompanied by the rhythm of the cymbal and beating of the large-sided drum, while the story unfolds in operatic recitative and chorus. Aside from the main performance comic scenes are acted with great brilliance.

The Merak Saktenpa people perform this dance-drama once a year, for five days at a time. Apart from the yearly festival, Ache Lhamo is performed, at some great monastery or wealthy noble’s house and other special events of national importance.

History
The Tibetan saint and the bridge-builder Thangtong Gyalpo, in the 14th century, began his project of building iron bridges over many big rivers in Tibet. To provide adequate provisions for the laborers he developed an interesting means for collecting donations. The Chhongje Bena family with seven daughters was called upon and to each daughter he assigned different roles, while he himself beat the drum. A large audience was gathered and everyone who watched the play enjoyed it very much. This was the first time that drama was introduced in Tibet.

During the late 14th century, the saint expanded his activity of bridge construction over Bhutan, and it is believed that along with him this art traveled to Bhutan.

The saint regarded his building of iron-suspension bridges and related engineering feat as a practical application of thebodhisattva ideal, and his introduction of this dance-drama Ache Lhamo is in no way different from any Buddhist activity. He is also credited for the introduction of other classical dances and folk performing arts.

Freeing horses

Free me ...

Several of you identified the image in the last “Big picture” as a horse. That is correct. Well done.

But Passang’s answer was the most accurate. He said that the image was a “Picture of the horse (lungta) on a faded prayer flag.”

The big picture is, quite literally, a painting of a horse on an old prayer flag. In fact, the prayer flag, with the lungta (or windhorse) printed in the middle, is clearly visible in the painting. To Karma Wangdi, the artist, that lungta, drawn within a square border, looked confined and trapped. So he set it free. That’s why he painted the white horse, emerging from the prayer flag, and galloping at full speed, to freedom.

Karma Wangdi, popularly known as Asha Karma, says that the aim of the lungta prayer flags is to release one’s good nature and positive energy so as to accumulate merit and fortune. But he feels that the lungta printed on the prayer flags are, themselves, confined within a square border. Worse still, Asha Karma laments that most of the prayer flags today are made from non-degradable polyester material that trap the lungta for decades, long after the prayer flags have done their work and have come down, littering the landscape.

So Asha Karma has been busy freeing the lungta from old, discarded prayer flags. He’s been doing that for the past 13 years, during which time he’s completed no less than 40 paintings depicting horses of in various shapes and sizes, all furiously galloping away to their freedom.

Free ... at last

And to help him on his mission, Asha Karma has trained dozens of young artists in his studio at VAST to also allegorically free horses from old prayer flags.

But he and his young volunteers have also literally freed countless lungtas – they’ve visited popular prayer flag sites (like Sangaygang and Dochula) to collect and properly dispose old, discarded prayer flags.

Passang should contact me to claim his prize, a copy of one of Asha Karma’s paintings. For the rest of you, I’ve uploaded some photos from Asha Karma’s “windhorse series” in the gallery.  Enjoy.

Spring art exhibition

“Everything in life is watched and seen beyond the strength of the naked eye,” says Passang Tobgay describing his painting “Under the Watchful Eye”.

Passang, who graduated in traditional painting from the Institute for Zorig Chusum, is a member of VAST. He taught traditional painting before exploring modern art to communicate his ideas and emotions.

“Under the Watchful Eye” is currently on display at VAST’s Spring Art Exhibition. The exhibition, which is at the Tarayana Centre, runs through April.