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Culture, Society

Street Songs of Tibet

Source: Samtsul: Tibet Through My Eyes

Singing has always been one of our favourite sources of recreation and entertainment. My Pala tells me, in Tibet one could overhear people singing while working in the fields, fetching water and even while doing minor household chores. Most of the singing was spontaneous and in promptu; people would get on with it anytime anywhere. Songs and dances were not solely associated with revelries and celebrations, they were an inseparable part of an ordinary Tibetan’s daily existence.

Things have not changed much; if anything, our passion for traditional songs and dances have grown over the years. A few immensely talented Tibetan artists, through their creativity and dedication, have taken Tibetan folk songs and dances to the pinnacle of their popularity. They have made many a Tibetan youth like me regret skipping M&D classes during school. Nawang Choephel la, Techung la and Chaksampa immediately come to my mind. The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) has also done a commendable job in recent years; in fact I was quite impressed by the 2008 Yarkyi DVD and could not get enough of it.

However, I shall refrain from making any further comment on the contemporary state of Tibetan music industry and instead talk about a unique breed of songs whose lyrics never cease to intrigue me. They were called ‘Sid-don Dang Drel-wai Sheys’ (songs related to politics). These were ditties sung in the streets of Lhasa and other big cities lampooning mainly the foibles, misdeeds and idiosyncrasies of government officials and aristocrats. In an era where no newspaper and electronic media existed, and when the ability to read and write was a privilege enjoyed by only a minor section of the populace, street songs played a role equivalent to the modern-day media and brought to the limelight issues of common concern, thus inadvertently spreading political awareness and shaping public opinion. These street songs became the voice of the masses and a channel through which to express views and dissents with a pinch of good old Tibetan humour and cynicism.

These songs inspired by socio-political developments in the country were sung to the tunes of popular folk songs and consisted satirical lyrics in stanzas of four lines each. Just like cartoons and caricatures of our day, street songs are thought to be the work of the intelligentsia class. And like the present-day media, they were often used as a propaganda machine; although essentially they were directed at embarrassing the administrators for their wrongdoings.

Following are English translations of some of my favourite street songs and socio-political events associated with them.

I will begin with the Younghusband Expedition of 1904 and the popular street song connected with the event.

At first, enemies of your faith they were,

And then, ‘outsiders’ we labelled them,

But, when in the land their rupees did appear,

They became known as sahibs and gentlemen.

Before the Younghusband Expedition, the Tibetans had a stereotypical image of Injis. Western influence was thought to be detrimental to our religion and our way of life.

In 1904, the British invaded Lhasa. Sporadic battles were fought en route the capital in which hundreds of ill-equipped Tibetan soldiers were massacred. Ordinary Tibetans spoke of them as ‘enemies of faith’ and ‘foreigners’. But the British paid generously for whatever services they rendered from the local Tibetans along their way. When, instead of looting and pillaging, the British hired and bought transport, fuel and food from the locals along their route, Tibetans started addressing them as ‘sahibs’ and ‘gentlemen’ . Enemies of faith, they seemed, no more.

In 1910-11, the Manchu forces invaded Tibet. The 13th Dalai Lama had escaped to India a few days prior to the arrival of the Manchus in the capital. With the Dalai Lama in exile, the Manchus desperately needed public mandate for their rule in Tibet. In order to win over the masses they tried to project the 9th Panchen Lama as the Dalai Lama’s replacement. The Panchen Lama shifted his residence temporarily to the Jokhang and then to the Norbulingka Palace. During the Butter Lamp festival, he even paraded with the Chinese Amban in a grandeur befitting only the Dalai Lama. All these did not go down well with the residents of Lhasa and the following parody began to be heard in the streets.

The slovenly attired monk

On the roof of the Jokhang,

Would have been a thief

If it were not for the arrival of the Dawn.

‘The Dawn’ was a Tibetan resistance movement which opposed any collaboration with the Manchus. After a brief stay in Lhasa, the Panchen Lama refused to be a Chinese stooge probably out of his high personal regard for the Dalai Lama and perhaps because of public humiliation he was subjected to.

The next street song refers to the confrontation between Reting Rinpoche and Taktra Rinpoche over Tibet’s regency. After successfully overseeing the search and recognition of the 14th Dalai Lama, Reting in 1940 resigned from the post of the regent citing spiritual commitments and installed Taktra in his place. It is believed that the two had reached a secret understanding whereby it was agreed that Taktra would hand back the reign to Reting after a specific time in the office.

However, when Reting returned after six years of ‘spiritual retreat’ and expressed his desire to resume his tenure as the regent. Taktra adamantly refused. This resulted in a failed coup by Reting and the monks of the Sera monastery in 1947. The associated street song goes as follows:

The Billy-goat being show-offish,

Has put his beard on the Tiger

The Tiger being shameless,

Has suddenly eaten the Billy-goat.

The ‘Billy-goat’ in the song is used as a synonym for Reting and the ‘Tiger’ for Taktra. It puns Reting’s stupidity and Takra’s lack of appreciation for Reting.

In 1950, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet. Thousands of PLA soldiers flooded the city of Lhasa to ‘liberate’ the Tibetans. The Tibetan government was asked to provide food and supplies for an increasing number of Chinese soldiers. This unprecedented immigration of military put a considerable strain on the fragile economy of the city and in no time inflation increased tenfold making life difficult for ordinary Tibetans. Prices of daily commodities touched sky and the people were driven to the point of starvation. The following street song ridicules the so-called Liberation Army and their ‘liberation’ of the Tibetans.

The liberation army has arrived.

The herd of beggars has arrived.

Everyone has been liberated.

Everyone has been made beggars.

The PLA is addressed as ‘the herd of beggars’ probably because they did not bring their own food and supplies from China, and depended on the Tibetans for the same. Their increasing demands impoverished the Tibetans and turned them into virtual beggars- which is sarcastically quoted as being ‘liberated’.

Another street song gained popularity in the aftermath of the Chinese invasion. It was about the rigorous political re-education, communist propaganda and struggle sessions (thamzing) which people were subjected to during the initial years of the Cultural Revolution. The following song appropriately explains the anguish of the people during those years of turmoil. It highlights their frustration and helplessness in an extremely witty manner.

Nothing to look forward to

But ceaseless thamzings every week;

So when death calls us

We will be too late!

These street songs, for me, exemplify the easy-going nature of our forebears and their tendency to look at the brighter and the funnier side of every serious situation. Catchy lyrics replete with satire and irony made these songs an instant rage in the cities and political messages conveyed through them reached thousands. In my opinion, street songs were the mother of the contemporary Tibetan media.

While writing this piece, I felt I should try my hands at composing a street song of my own. So here it is:

Expecting wise words, all ears I was

but watching cats and dogs

In the House bicker

blind and deaf, made me wish I was

I will leave the translating to the readers.

 

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