LAPON SONAM TSERING

 

With Sonam Tsering, one is brought to the play of rich ideograms parallel to Tibetan Buddhsit axioms about ‘everything’. Sonam works in different ways, and his ways have grown over time. But now we can see them all merging on his invisible map and calendar. The museum and the stories. Sonam moves around in search of tales and objects, people to hear and receive from, people to tell and transmit to. The archaeologist and the narrator. Sonam plays a crossroads for object and tales. Everything in the museum that he’s collected writes the language in which lost fables and songs, games and rituals can be read and heard. He finds them resonate like living syllables of a language inscribed in perennial war and peace. He attempts to give us the living world in which spirits continue to live, the wind is a chance messenger, a world immersed in magic; every little insect, every pebble sustains delicate wombs of tribal memory and existence. These are suspended passages of imaginary homelands within the noisy climate of history. A small conversation with Sonam  unfolds strange twists and turns in the ethnic epic-historic saga of a race who, as History would have it, at some point of time provided shelter to the distressed Tibetan emigre and signed a bloodpact with them, much later to have been subject to similar cultural cleansing in the later democratic times. And yet, he’s not anywhere near the center of the mainstream of lepcha political history. He figures marginally , if not nowhere on the many websites and blogs, public petitions and debates that abound the radically altering and anxious piece of breakaway territory called Kalimpong ( now in West Bengal, a separate state) whose fate is interlocked with the issues of a separate Gorkha state formation cooking since the late eighties or even the Sikkim Govt’s policies regarding building of multiple hydel power projects on the Teesta and Rangit rivers . Gorkhas are originally people from adjoining Nepal who introduced Sikkim to terrace cultivation and democracy. Now they are a demographic majority ( over 80%) and rule the Sikkimese parliament by default. Teesta and Rangit are rivers sacred to both the Tibetan Buddhists and the Lepchas.  Sonam has even written dramas on their lovelore, given them songs in the ballad of Geybu Achyuk. Today, he seems all too cynical to walk the now pedestrian tracks that his journey’s themselves had etched as also nothing of what he has won as reward will get back fractions of what disappears everyday. The mountains echo a void. Sonam answers this scream with lonely prayers and rituals, every time. Later each becomes a festival.

Why did Sonam take the solitary path of roaming time, we shall never know. Sonam’s own testimony rarely helps in this regard. Even when he is talking about facts, he does so in a way as if to translate from fact into his own language that comprises of words ( some of which are really difficult to follow), music, gestures, the body itself. All of factual histories and lived experiences run into another discourse.. the self conscious performance that Sonam writes and lives everyday for himself. On a regular day, Sonam would hold a music class in the morning, then retreat to his Lepcha museum, writing, transcribing from oral histories etc., music recordings. Then , if he has a visitor like me fumbling at the doorway of this quaint stopover in the back lanes of the small hilly town of Kalimpong, he invites him/her inside and silently points towards various objects, photos, musical instruments etc. When the visitor is taking in the weird assemblage offered by this unassuming jovial old man , Sonam takes out a couple of small bamboo whistles lying around somewhere ( they always seem to materialize then and there). Birds begin to coo, you know it’s just a primitive hunter’s signal that often turns into a toy for this wise and edgy, calm and friendly traveler and artist.  

Sonam gives us connections between Sikkim (Nye Mayel Lyang) and Tibet much older than anybody had told us…the Tibetan script, he says, has Lepcha contributions…and refers back to the legendary Tashey-thing as an inevitable polemic in the formation of Tibetan culturescape in the 6th century; about forty kings before Srong Tsen Gampo. Similarly, talking about Zilnon, a place where Rikdzin Godemchen (a Terton / treasure discoverer who ‘opened up’ Sikkim) is supposed to have breathed his last, Sonam gives us critically similar accounts of Tashey-thing almost in the lines of the Buddhist saviors and emancipators. The émigré makes meaning, memory. Points at the changing mountain populated with tales, countertales … When Sonam begins to speak about the Lepcha past and present one is a lilt hesitant in accepting his claims, when he points at the relics and carries on narrating fantastic ballads and singing his ancestral songs, one slowly begins to enter a world that is eclipsed by modern reason and doubt. Gradually, he takes us into the deepest core of a land, people and culture that is not only a legacy but also a potential resistance and intermediary of tribal continuum.

Ideological structures enable that the idea of the ‘world as an idea’ may continue to live beyond the life of the living world itself, often in opposition to it. In the Lepcha magic is not an idea, its creation and what makes its performance possible are real, dynamic and perennial. Ideology without humor, in the sense that it is legitimization of history and not a proposition idea is denied by ontology, existence… the essence is mythical, of the order of oral epic. Immortality itself often verges on totalitarianism. Having venerated the symbol one goes on to embrace physical contraries that keep only arguments alive.  The Lepcha language in which most of these stories and practices found social exchange is a complex metaphorical operation on the magical world that ‘used to be’. It has fallen to disuse in most social domains. Everyone knows that with the stories the mountains will also disappear. Faith today, when you can name it, stands on shaky grounds.. it is where Sonam’s work begins..  Sonam Tshering Lepcha, man musician mythoscribe, goes on to write his own tradition of Lepcha hagiography, in the line of his invisible ancestors who have sanctified their homeland with primitive discourses, fragmentary, fragile, and persistent. They lack that grand Tibetan Buddhist carnivals exalt in and celebrate… they are in conflict; but are also locked in an ancient dialog with their counterparts in the Buddhist mode.

Sikkim ( original habitation of the Lepchas, now part of Indian democracy) is revered by Tibetan Buddhists as one of the ‘hidden lands’ discovered by the eight century Buddhist figure, Guru Rinpoche, as a land for the promulgation of the Buddhist teachings during times of political instability etc. Sikkim or sbas yul ‘bras mo ljongs, a monarchial country until very recently and annexed to India only in 1975, is a culturescape that stands a missing link bridging a gulf across not only the Indian Buddhist experience but also between the dichotomy between modernity and tradition. The reading of its history and the re-telling of its past differs radically depending who and when ventures to reason with it. This search for a Lepcha essence lead Sonam to look for and compile an anthology of ballads and lore, prevailing among Lepchas & Bhutanese people flanking the eastern borders of Sikkim and touching almost the foothills of Wesrt Bengal, centered around a Lepcha legendary hero Geybu Achyuk, who apart from believed to have struck terror in hearts of the Tibetan kings also stands as a testimony of the rich vibrant Lepcha identity and traditions that have often been coerced and assimilated within the historic mainstream of the greater cultures or majority demography. The stories, songs etc. and more importantly the readings that Sonam brings to them are almost complementary to the Lepcha museum ( the only one of its kind in the world, states Sonam matter of fact-ly) that Sonam has been building since his days of youth.  Today, on the Geybu Achyuk Ceremony the museum becomes a livewire for transmission of history and traditional knowledge to the teeming Lepcha population traveling to Kalimpong from all over Sikkim & West Bengal. Started in the 80’s the Geybu Achyuk Ceremony, placed almost around the Lepcha New Year / Harvest season ( Namsoong) is a major point of Lepcha unity and collective cultural expression at an age when most young Lepchas apart from being second/third generation Christians are also ignorant of the impeccably witty and expressive Lepcha language as such… he has transcribed entire Lepcha oral traditions, songs, lore and prayers that have gone with the disappearing shamanic and priestly vocations. Yet, even today they are the customary counterpart of almost every Sikkimese observance ; the chalk circle within which eternity mingles with history…

In the process of our research we are led time and again to negotiate with alternate paradigms of truth and meaning regarding the facticity and influence of the ritual theatre that we refer to as a narrative leitmotif. The film is a witness to the contradictions and counter-forces that sustain ancient practices, representative of the hetero-valence attributed to it, enriched by an active dialogue among the consciousness of the indigenous society and the modern individual whose personal socio-historic experience is ‘re-deemed’ in contact with a larger matrix of interwoven trans-cultural racial histories of which the Sikkimese geopolitical domain is a crucible.  The idyllic shepherd could be and often is a sub-character in the medieval romance and postmodern farce at the same time grazing his cattle somewhere in the wilderness of transcendental signifiers. It takes him, and this is perhaps where the film tries its subject, a while to retrieve his drifting world from the whirlpools of prosthetic negotiations… what does Sonam finally tell to his audience? One is not looking for reconciliation, that is utopian… what still remains to be achieved at all now is to redeem one’s present moment from gothic parables and savage denials… one hopes to reclaim the changing world from verbiage of things vanishing, only eternally…