The Story of Tibet

It must be summer because I'm back blogging again! After a whirlwind first year back in the classroom, I'm spending vacation preparing four new seminar courses next year. First up on the reading list? Thomas Laird's The Story of Tibet.

The Book

Laird spent nine years interviewing the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and researching Tibetan history while writing this book. Although mostly focused on the life and times of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas, his book also includes a retrospective of Tibetan history from archaeological times through 2010. I appreciate that this is a text where the historian is very present; Laird wavers between historical inquiry, swooning over personal audiences with the Dalai Lama, and executing a personal mission to eradicate the Chinese rewriting of Tibetan history. His obvious crushing on the Dalai Lama gets a little old sometimes, but honestly if I were meeting the Dalai Lama for personal audiences I'd fall prey to the same phenomenon.

This is called The Story of Tibet and not "The History of Tibet" because it straddles the fine line between myth and verifiable history. "'There can be two visions of the same thing,' the Dalai Lama said, 'one of people who have a pure insight developed through spiritual practice and one that is purely conventional. In these special cases- and these events are rare, but important- both are true, both are reality'" (5). It's perhaps a dangerous text to use in the classroom of a school populated by history PhDs, but I feel it's time to inject some context into the history my students learn. Rarely is history, as a remembered tradition, up to the rational standards of professional historians. It instead lies somewhere between rational truth and religion, belief and academic theory.

Trisong Detsen

Tibet has a long and, I discovered, interesting history. Songzen Gampo, the first Tibetan emperor, married both a Chinese princess and a Nepalese princess, demonstrating the importance of Tibet amongst its neighbors around 600 CE. Both wives brought images of the Buddha to Lhasa with them. As the first emperor, Songzen Gampo instituted a unified law code and supported the creation of the Tibetan script to aid the study of Buddhism. But it's Trisong Detsen, Songzen Gampo's great-great-grandson, that I'll be talking about in class for blending politics and Buddhism. Trisong Detsen sacked Chang'an, the Tang Chinese capital in 763. An eventual peace treaty recognized China and Tibet as equal powers. 

Trisong Detsen is most famous for inviting the two Indian Buddhist masters, Santaraksita and Padmasambhava, to spread Buddhism in Tibet. Samye, the first monastery in Tibet, was founded during his reign. Padmasambhava is not recorded in the Indian historical record, but was crucial to Trisong Detsen's success. "'The religious king- and we say that Trisong Detsen was a Dharma Raja- he had his own domain. Then the spiritual teacher had his own domain. There is a special relationship between Trisong Detsen and Padmasambhava, and in fact Tibetans believe that any ruler of Tibet must have some special relationship with Padmasambhava'" (57). The complementary nature of religion and rule is a theme that will cycle throughout Tibetan history.

Mongol Empire

And then, of course, the Mongol Empire thundered onto the scene.  Although some historians estimate that he reduced the world population by 11% during his reign, I was still shocked to learn that 8% of all men in contemporary lands once conquered by Genghis Khan bear a Y chromosome marker that can be traced directly to Genghis Khan's family (105). This DNA legacy reveals the awesome power and ruthlessness of the Mongols. Tibet, recently divided by the persecution of Buddhism and internal fighting, made the fateful choice to collaborate with the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan's grandsons became interested in Tibetan Buddhism, and eventually Kublai Khan established the Tibetan monk Phagpa as his imperial preceptor in 1260.

The two created a unique partnership, with Kublai as the "'sovereign of terrestrial power'" and Phagpa as "'the cornerstone of sacred religion'" (115). Phagpa eventually created a script for Mongolian, which may be the foundation for the modern Korean alphabet. Buddhism spread widely throughout the Mongol Empire with Phagpa's help, and Tibetan Buddhist temples in Iran were patronized by local Mongol rulers. Kublai sent Phagpa to rule Tibet for the Mongols, and later Kublai established the Yuan Dynasty in China. The relationship between Mongolia and Tibet continued through the work of the Third Dalai Lama with the Mongolian ruler Altan Khan, resulting in the birth of the Fourth Dalai Lama in Mongolia.

Fourteenth Dalai Lama

The Fourteenth Dalai Lama identifies most closely with the Fifth Dalai Lama, who unified Tibet and built the Potala, and his immediate predecessor, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Despite a rigorous education in Buddhist philosophy, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama found himself struggling to adjust to a modernizing world. Tibet was a pawn in the Great Game between Russia and Britain during the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's reign, with invasions by the British in 1904 (they were afraid Tibet was aligning with Russia) and the Manchus of Qing Dynasty China in 1910 (they were afraid of British power in Tibet). As a result, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama spent many years in exile. Once he was able to return to Tibet he moved to modernize the country and create an army, but his reforms angered the conservative landowners and monastics in the country. Interestingly, before the end of his life the Thirteenth Dalai Lama predicted the invasion of the communists and the destruction of Tibetan culture.

I'd never really associated the destructive force of communism with the Chinese invasion of Tibet, but it makes sense. Mao's invasion of Tibet was presaged by the brutality of Soviet occupation of Mongolia. In 1954, when Mao at the height of his power, he rather impressed the 19-year-old Dalai Lama. "'I thought he was a great and powerful and revolutionary... and I still feel that the early part of his life was really dedicated to the people'" (323). The Fourteenth Dalai Lama was quite taken by the ideals of Marxism, but as he noted, "'Of course, if at that time I had known how many people he killed, then my impression would be different'" (328).

Dharamsala, the Tibetan Government in Exile

The best part of The Story of Tibet is the last portion about the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. My takeaway is that the majority of the history the Dalai Lama learned was from the sweepers, or low-class servants, that he was surrounded by as a child. That makes the current Dalai Lama's view of Tibetan history strangely subaltern.


The Twentieth Wife

Just published in India Currents!

Photo Credit: Brooke Duthie

Lovers of The Twentieth Wife will be excited to know kathak artist Farah Yasmeen Shaikh will soon be interpreting the popular novel on a San Francisco stage. Avid readers will also be thrilled that Indu Sundaresan, acclaimed author of the novel, will narrate the performance. “I watched one of her performances and was absolutely mesmerized by her technique, stamina, and skill” says Indu Sundaresan, author of The Twentieth Wife, of Shaikh’s dynamism on stage. Shaikh and Sundaresan will be joined by a live orchestra to tell the interwoven stories of Emperor Akbar, Prince Salim, and the woman who would become the twentieth wife of Jahangir, Mehrunissa.

“Mughal kings were larger than life. They lived violently and loved violently” explains Sundaresan. The Twentieth Wife, based on a close historical reading of the Mughal Empire in India, focuses on pivotal events in the transfer of power between two of its most influential emperors. The novel’s true genius, though, lies in locating the story’s historical perspective behind zenana walls. Although the novel has already become a TV series, Shaikh and Sundaresan’s performance will offer a new way into a beloved story. “As far as I know the concept had never been done before. Kathak is a dance form that evolved before the time I’m talking about, but it was performed for the Mughals so it seemed like a nice marriage” says Sundaresan. 

“I wanted to share the honor I feel representing this part of history, honoring this woman for the poignant place she holds today with gender imbalance in the world,” says Shaikh, artistic director, speaking of Mehrunissa. After falling in love with The Twentieth Wife upon first reading, Shaikh reached out to Sundaresan to propose joining their art forms in an artistic collaboration. “I was deeply moved by reading the book. As a Muslim woman trained in and practicing a classical dance form with Islamic influence, I wanted to bring [these things] together” explains Shaikh.

The result is a dynamic interpretation by Shaikh that inhabits the lives, perspectives, and bodies of Akbar, Salim, and Mehrunissa. “The burden of the entire performance falls on her” says Sundaresan of Shaikh. Sundaresan’s narration will tie the performance to its original form, “The entire dance drama is narrated directly from the novel. I added a little original content to help with the transitions.” The performance will, on a deeper level, also tell the story of the collaboration between these two women. “’It’s not just what you create on the dance floor, you must spend time together, eat together, know each other,’” says Shaikh, quoting her teacher and guru, Pandit Chitresh Das, on the art of collaboration.

Photo Credit: Brooke Duthie

Using multi-media effects, a dynamic grouping of musicians, and multiple costume changes, the performance will highlight the unique perspective of imperial women in Mughal history. “In the zenana, in the harem, things happened behind closed doors. The audience may not have been able to see things directly, depending on who they were [historically],” says Shaikh of her shadow-work to portray Mehrunissa’s perspective during the performance. Original music composed by Salar Nader will provide an auditory interpretation for Mehrunissa and other characters, with Ben Kunin on sarod, Raginder Singh Momi on violin, Deepti Warrier on vocals, and Irum Musharraf as vocal support.

“It was kismet,” concludes Shaikh of the opportunity to collaborate with Sundaresan. Female audience members will be inspired by Shaikh’s motivation to “move beyond the repertoire I was taught to find something that uniquely inspires me.” Male audience members will also relate to her interpretation, “So many men find the scene between Akbar and Salim very emotional, and want to talk about it” says Shaikh. Ultimately, the performance will tell the story of the woman who will become Empress Noor Jahan, a woman who becomes much more than simply the power behind the veil. “It is history told in a contemporary context, in a contemporary way” concludes Sundaresan.

Z Space Presents The Twentieth Wife
Farah Yasmeen Shaikh and Indu Sundaresan
450 Florida Street, San Francisco, 94110
Friday, January 16th and Saturday, January 17th 8pm
Sunday, January 18th 2pm
Tickets begin at $35




Just published in India Currents!

For over 15 years the nonprofit Society for Art & Cultural Heritage of India has been recognized for its partnerships with Bay Area arts institutions and local and international artists and scholars. Kalpana Desai, SACHI President, talks with India Currents about the creative programming that showcases the richness and diversity of the Indian artistic tradition.

Artist Jitish Kallat and Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose sitting on Kallat's installation Public Notice 3 installed on the Woman’s Board Grand Staircase at the Art Institute.

How does SACHI connect to the current South Asian Bay Area arts scene and the institutions that support that scene?
SACHI is a community driven organization. SACHI has carved a special niche for generating rewarding learning experiences especially in the visual arts, but also through film, theater, book discussions, conversations, textile workshops and music and dance demonstrations. SACHI has a long standing relationship with art institutions like the Asian Art Museum, the Palo Alto Art Center, the Cantor Arts Center, the Mills College Art Museum, and the Berkeley Art Museum. In addition, we share a strong affiliation with the Center for South Asia at Stanford and the Center for South Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. Over 15 plus years, SACHI has partnered with nearly 50 Bay Area and international groups.

What does SACHI bring to Bay Area arts and culture that is unique?
The South Asian visual arts space is one that has room for a wider reach beyond artistic and academic circles. Performing arts often provide rich context in elucidating and illuminating concepts explored in the visual arts. We bring together different forms of artistic expression in creative ways for a dynamic and multi-dimensional understanding of Indian culture. The recent exhibition on yoga at the Asian Art Museum, for example, inspired a children's yoga workshop. Similarly, a Thumri-Kathak music and dance performing arts event in conjunction with the Maharaja exhibition beautifully evoked an atmosphere of court entertainment.

Swami Vivekananda, Hindoo Monk of India, United States, 1893, Poster (color lithograph), copy of original from Goes Lithographing Company, Chicago, Vedanta Society of Northern California, courtesy of Asian Art Museum

How does SACHI represent both classical and contemporary arts?
Our close association with Bay Area museums and our connections in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, London, Mumbai, and Delhi enables SACHI to access both scholarship and living artists from a wide geographical spectrum. Contemporary art is an area that interests SACHI in many ways, because it intersects with current events. The SACHI team stays connected to both the classical and contemporary realms, as well as folk art traditions. 

What are you most excited about in the May lineup of SACHI events?
A highlight mid-May SACHI event is on May 18th. This event is exciting because it brings together Swami Vivekananda as a reformist thinker and pairs him with a contemporary Indian artist, Jitish Kallat, whose Public Notice 3 was installed on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. This event will make a powerful statement about the state of the world through Vivekananda's timeless message of universal harmony and Kallat's creative transformation of this message. The Art Institute of Chicago curator who worked closely with Kallat during the installation, Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose, will be presenting the talk.  On May 23rd, SACHI is hosting a talk by Vedanta scholar Prasad Vepa, Trustee of the California Institute of Integral Studies. “The Not-so-Hidden Secrets of Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita” will provide a philosophical exploration of the yoga exhibit.

Public Notice 3, Site-specific text-based light installation, Grand Staircase of the Art Institute of Chicago,
Gift of the Artist, 2010.418

SACHI started in 1997. How have you seen the organization change and develop over the years? 
SACHI has evolved organically over the years, and it continues to grow and flourish with the changing composition of its talented and dedicated volunteer Board. The scale and number of programs launched annually has perhaps doubled over time. As a result, SACHI’s visibility in the art and culture world has increased with a greater demand for program participation than it can comfortably accommodate within its existing framework. That SACHI has found a place in the program agenda of museum and university settings on a consistent basis is something we are particularly proud of. 

“Public Notice 3:  From Vivekananda to Kallat”
Dr. Madhuvanti Ghose
Sunday May 18th, 2pm 
Samsung Hall, Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
Free after museum admission

“The Not-so-Hidden Secrets of Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita”
Prasad Vepa
Friday May 23rd, 2pm
Education Classroom, Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street, San Francisco
$15.00, limited seating