The Curious Case of the Dancing Monks: Negotiating Tibetan Identity in Exile

By Harmony Siganporia.

Published by The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society

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Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: October 22, 2015 $US5.00

Of the many cultural artefacts which lay claim to re-presenting the cultures they emanate from, music – especially within the Tibetan context – does it with great effect, because it straddles the realms of the sacred and secular with ease, and becomes a site where identity comes to be negotiated within the exile community. Building on this premise, this paper seeks to critically investigate an "incident" which has been reconstructed from the pages of the monthly journal 'Tibetan Review' for the months of May to October, 1982. It pertains to a particular performance which took place in the TIPA (Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts) auditorium that year when a ‘local’ Dharamsala rock band, comprising long-term British, Canadian and German residents, called the "Vajra Hammer," was invited to play a concert to commemorate the end of a six-month "Enlightened Experience Celebration" organised by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, which sought to promote Buddhist teachings in the "West." The concert, which saw the band performing to a packed crowd of Westerners and Tibetans “jumping up and down half the night,” was also attended by some of the monk initiates who had just completed this course alongside the many lay people in it. All was going to plan until, as columnist Tsering Wangyal puts it, “Tibetans looked in disbelief as a number of Western monks and nuns disrobed backstage, changed into T-shirts and jeans, and got on the dance floor with wild abandon” (Tibetan Review, 1982: 11). News of this event spread across Dharamsala quickly, and the incident incited much excited comment in the Tibetan community, including criticism levelled against TIPA itself, for permitting such a “scandalous spectacle” to occur on campus. This article seeks to investigate the tensions of navigating the realms of sacred and secular practice - heightened by the fact of exile - which emerge from a close reading of this incident, and the heated debates it gave rise to within the exile and expat communities in Dharamsala.

Keywords: Tibetan Music, Dancing Monks, Sacred and Secular Practices, Cultural Tensions, Dharma

The International Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society, Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2016, pp.53-60. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: October 22, 2015 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 367.385KB)).

Dr. Harmony Siganporia

Associate Faculty, Area of Culture and Communication, MICA-India, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India