Tibetan A lce Lha mo: The World Beneath the Tent

by Jeanette Snyder

I sat in Glenary’s Tea Room, dawn just breaking, wolfing down my substantial English breakfast in preparation for the day long event to come. Outside the window the trickle of Tibetans dressed in their best, carrying aluminum teapots filled with chang (beer), packets of snacks and lunch, cushions, umbrellas, babies on their back, toddlers in hand, and the occasional little dog tucked into the chest fold of a robe,had increased to a steady flow moving up along the high street beneath my window. I gulped down the last of my tea and grabbed my camera and tape recorder, eager to join the excited throng headed in the direction of the Darjeeling Tibetan School grounds.

The Himalayan Range was bright in the distance and the day promised to be fair. It was spring 1964 in Darjeeling, India, and I was on my way to experience my first live performance of A lce Lha mo or lha mo. The name lha mo is most commonly explained by Tibetans to have originated from the portrayal by actors of the many female roles of goddesses or "lhamo" that are found in the plays. A lce means "elder sister."

Lha mo is the classical secular theater of Tibet, the nearest Western equivalent of which is opera. The plays, drawn from Tibetan literature and developed within the matrix of Tibetan world views, present moving dramas of human concern, characters, and relationships. A play performed in itsentirety lasts a full day. It is played in the round, with a rich assortment of masks, costumes, properties and fluid staging. In acting out the story, the members of the lha mo troupe employ a variety of musical elements: sung dialogue, chanted narration, drum–and–cymbalpieces, and occasional interludes of traditional songs. Satire, comic improvisation, stylized movement and dancing round out the performance.

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Norbu Tsering,
Lha mo director and teacher

From the many Lha mo troupes in Tibet, ten were selected to perform in the yearly national public drama festival in Lhasa, a practice discontinued after the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Now, I was about to see four days of Lha mo presented by an exile troupe largely made up of players from one of the drama festival ten, the Skyor mo lung, who hailed from Lhasa. I was particularly excited about seeing the famous and popular Skyor mo lung actor I had heard so much about from my Tibetan friends, Norbu Tsering, or &quotLapa" as he was popularly known. He had recently escaped from a Chinese labor camp near Lhasa and had made his way to Kalimpong, India, where he became director and teacher of this new exile company set up by local opera fans.

As I reached the top of the hill above the Tibetan school, I stepped aside to allow two young theater goers on their mountain ponies access to the trail that led down to the school grounds and the huge canopied Tibetan tent erected there. I spotted my Lama friend whom I was to meet here, speaking to an elderly Tibetan man leaning against the fence watching the passing crowd. Lama J. was trying to convince the man to accept a ticket and come down to the performance. The man refused, saying it was more interesting to watch from the hill where he could hear and see everything that went on both inside and outside the tent. And for four days and four plays he would faithfully occupy what he saw as the "best seat in the house."

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Lha mo Theater tents

As we made our way down the hill towards the canopied tent, I could see activity in a small tent at the side, which I found served as green room and dressing room. Players partially dressed in their costumes for the ritual introductory section of the performance were peering out the dressing room tent flap, greeting friends and "checking the house". Excited children and one or two little dogs ran about, peeping into the green room or romping in and out of the big tent.

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Green Room for preparing actors.
A child who came by to greet the "horses"

Lama J and I joined the adults, milling about greeting one another awaiting their turn to enter the theater and take a seat. We ducked into the actor’s entrance at the south east corner of the big tent and found places in the south section of the seating that rings the staging area. The northern and eastern sides were almost full with people sitting on cushions or folding chairs. The western side was blocked off with ropes and had only a table holding a picture of H.H. the Dalai Lama draped with a white scarf of respect, thus reserving his traditional "box" as it were. Eventually, by the end of the day, children and youths would nip under the guard ropes and fill the space, for these seats allowed a good view of the proceedings.

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Tree in stage center and property table

The center of the stage was marked with a small leafy tree about ten feet high that had been firmly implanted in the ground. There were no sets or scenery. A small property table stood next to the tree bearing offerings and an image of the great Shangs pa Kargyudpa teacher, Grub chen Thang stong Rgyal po (1385-1464), the patron of the Lha mo players. To him are attributed the first lha mo performances, particularly the songs and dances of the introductory ritual section which begins every play performance. Underneath the table were simple properties, mats and such, and also a large kettle of chang, Tibetan beer.

A chair sat in front of the tree, facing to the west. It became in the day’s play a throne, a mountain, a flying golden drum, and a huge lotus to name a few. I soon discovered, as the day advanced, that with the addition of imaginative properties and a scene set by narrative chant, both the actor and audience created palaces, forests, undersea and sky–going realms, boat rides, battlefields and market places.

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Drummer using coals to tune his drum

In the east, in front of the audience, two large cushions and a large basin of glowing coals marked the position of the two instrumentalists. The coals were for the drummer who played a double skinned frame drum about two and a half feet in diameter with sides painted in colorful motifs and the scarves of the five sacred colors hanging from the top. The drum was mounted on a long wooden handle, the end of which usually rested on the ground. It was held in the left hand of the seated musician, who played the drum patterns using a sickle–shaped drum stick on the head or sometimes the wooden frame of the drum. We watched as he heated the drum head over the coals until the pitch and timbre of the drum sounded to his satisfaction.The other musician was busily making last minute adjustments to his sitting space and joking with friends in the audience. He played a pair of flattened–hemispherical cymbals, producing patterns using a variety of striking techniques. The drummer, at last satisfied with his drum’s voice, nudged the cymbal player and both, carrying their instruments, disappeared through the actor’s entrance.

A small white dog trotted in and found a seat up front.