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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Tibetan Cultural Symposium Promotes Exiled Art

Author: Allison Quady Arts Editor

The Tibetan Festival Saturday afternoon in McCullough began with Louisa Conrad's '04, president of Students for a Free Tibet, introduction of Cathy Zaccone, the international issues liaison for Senators James Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). Zaccone's speech on the diplomatic efforts of the two Vermont senators on behalf of Ngawong Choephel, a former Fulbright Scholar at Middlebury College being held captive by the Chinese government since 1995, set the political tone for the remainder of the Tibetan Festival

The focus of the three-hour cultural event was on Choephel, who had gone to Tibet to film Tibetan folk dances, but was arrested by the Chinese government on charges of espionage. Choephel has been sentenced to 18 years in prison, but it is hoped that with political pressure the Chinese government can be convinced to release him on medical parole.

Since his arrest, Choephel has developed several serious health problems, including hepatitis, jaundice and urinary tract infections. Organizer Tenzin Wangyal '03, stated the position of Students for a Free Tibet, which has dedicated itself to Choephel's release: "We recognize that he is not the only political prisoner in the world, but we think his release would set a precedent." Wangyal further summarized the principle of the Tibetan Festival in relation to Choephel. "Ngawong Choephel went into Tibet because he felt it was his responsibility to preserve Tibet's culture and to learn more about it. Our event highlights Tibetan culture, so we're in fact trying to walk in his footsteps, trying to preserve our culture, not just as entertainment but also to educate people."

Following Zaccone's speech, Lhadon Tehong, the New York City coordinator for Students For a Free Tibet, spoke specifically about her organization's efforts to free Choephel. She emphasized that considering the greater political climate produced by recent terrorist events and their violent repercussions, "It is absolutely necessary to push the mandate of Tibet as the ideal of non violent action for freedom." When asked to define the United State's interest in Tibet in relation to the preservation of their culture, Lhadon replied, speaking of the United States, "This country is an incredible mosaic of cultures, and Tibetan communities in the states contribute to this mosaic. The United States upholds the value of all of the cultural traditions of the world." Lhadon stated that in light of Choephel's studies in ethnomusicology at the College and his return to Tibet to practice these skills, his imprisonment is directly related to the destruction of the cultural freedoms that he learned in the United States and that this country upholds.

The seven Tibetans performing Saturday were dedicated to the preservation and the exposure of their culture in exile, with the conviction that their efforts would aid Tibetan traditions currently on the brink of extinction.

The first performance was a duet by Wangyal and Tenzin Dorjee, a student from Brown University, singing a Tibetan nomad song, praising the beauty of the Tibetan landscape and the unique nomadic diet of yak butter tea and roasted barley. Tibetan musicians living in exile, called The Freedom Youth Group, composed the song in the years following the Chinese invasion.

The following performance was another duet, but this time between Dorjee and Tenzin Kyizom a student at Cornell University. Kyizom sang a traditional Tibetan love song while Dorjee accompanied her on the Tibetan lute. According to Wangyal, the wordless song praised the Potala winter palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.

Subsequently, Kyizom, known for her dancing and singing skills among the Tibetan community in Boston, danced with Wangyal, who later said that, while he was improvising steps he had learned in school, Kyizom danced very professionally.

After the crowd had been released from their seats to enjoy the welcomed cuisine, catered by local restaurant Taste of India, Dorjee continued the performance with a haunting song on the Tibetan flute. The patriotic tune told of sacrificing everything one has for Tibet's freedom struggle. Then Tenzin Wangchuk, recently arrived from India, sang a Tibetan freedom song accompanied by Wangyal and Dorjee on guitar. For the final performance, Tenzin Norzin, a student at Bryant College, played the xylophone. Afterwards, Wangyal and others taught the crowd to dance in traditional Tibetan style. When asked about the development of newer styles in Tibetan culture, as opposed to the traditional that was on display Saturday, Wangyal replied that because Tibetan culture only survives in exile, all efforts are focused towards preserving what exists. In his words, "We've tried to keep it authentic, and so we haven't been that creative, we haven't evolved, we feel hesitant, we just want to keep it intact." The traditions the exiled Tibetans keep alive were learned in India at Tibetan Children's Village Schools, funded with western support.

By Wangyal's request, the International Campaign for Tibet, based in Washington D.C., sent a traditional Tibetan Nomad's tent made out of Yak's fur. "It smells really bad," comments Wangyal, "Nomads only bathe about once a year." Inside the tent, pitched on the McCullough green, the organizers made a shrine room, placing Tibetan carpets on the floor and a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

The audience enjoying the array of music and dance exhibited Saturday was repeatedly reminded of the political implications of Tibet's exiled culture. Lhadon's assertion that "support for Tibet isn't support for Tibet alone," compels audiences' appreciative of Tibetan art and culture to ensure its continuing survival outside of the Tibetan homeland.