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Mount Holyoke College

Publication Date

Spring 2013

Program Name

Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples


In this paper, I discuss themes of preservation, adaptation, and the construction of tradition in the context of Tibetan performing arts. I chose to explore these issues by looking specifically at a play composed by His Holiness the current Karmapa, based on the life of Milarepa, one of the most revered yogis of Tibetan Buddhism. This play is unique in the sense that many of its aspects stem directly from traditional Tibetan opera, or lhamo, yet the ways in which it was presented and the reasons why it was presented this way diverge considerably from “tradition.” I conducted my research in Dharamsala, a hill station in northern India which serves as the seat for the Tibetan government-in-exile, and houses a large Tibetan refugee population. I conversed with artists and administrators at TIPA, asking them how they, as an institution and as individuals, find the balance between preserving the ‘traditional’ art form and adapting newer techniques and ideas from other cultures and art forms. In my conversations, various questions arose: what is important to preserve, and why? What changes are made within the art form, and again, why? I discovered during this research that preservation itself is a process of construction, that in attempting to preserve ‘tradition,’ communities consciously facilitate an evolving culture that constitutes what is important to them at that very specific moment in time. A second trajectory I followed in my research was that my informants’ experiences working so closely with such a ‘high lama,’ as one of the artists called His Holiness the Karmapa. How did having this play be composed and directed by such a renowned religious leader shape their experiences as artists? I discovered here, that in the context of the play, my informants accommodated their identities as refugees and as artists in a larger framework of duty and fate. They recognized the importance of their roles as members of TIPA, seeing it as their service, or duty, for the cause of Tibet. But importantly, they also saw their experiences as privileges earned through positive karmic forces and deeds done in past lives. Ultimately, their presence at TIPA had a purpose, encompassing more than simply their individual careers.


Anthropology | Arts and Humanities | Dramatic Literature, Criticism and Theory | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Theatre and Performance Studies


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