Xochitl (pronounced So-chi-tl, with the ‘tl’ almost like a light choke, in her words) and I have been working with a group of 10 young people for a month now at the Bhutan Youth Development Fund (YDF). In the first class we had four recovering drug addicts and several other unemployed youth come along, but nearly all of them have left. Many of our participants are from Happy Valley Youth Theatre Group. The ‘Happy’ stands for ‘Helping Advocate Productive and Progressive Youth’. They have set themselves up as a profit-share cooperative with a social advocacy agenda, though alas there’s not too much profit to be shared at present.
Some members work as performers in ‘drayang’ (entertainment) bars. Although strip clubs are illegal and dancers in the bars wear the Kira (the national dress), sexual exploitation still occurs at times in these professions. If the co-operative made enough money to support its members, the dancers said they would gladly quit their bar work, but for the moment they have to keep on doing both. Some members were previously in gangs, some were alcoholics. Some are still alcoholics. Some are amazing singers, most can perform multiple traditional and foreign dances and are very quick at learning new dances. One member can paint traditional images such as the eight lucky signs of Buddhism with exquisite skill — the same member is a video game addict. The co-operative structure of Happy Valley keeps all its members accountable — every member vigorously demands to know where money has been spent. It’s participatory democracy operating in a theatrical ensemble form: there’s little chance for corruption with every member demanding evidence of receipts for every purchase made.
If there is an overriding philosophy emerging out of the workshops, it would perhaps be called Maggotism. As performers, our ensemble think as maggots, devouring the corpse of corporate culture to convert it into mulch for the seeds of living culture. After this our performers shall sprout wings, growing into flies to sting the lumbering beast of mass opinion into action- then once they are done they can plant their eggs in more corporate corpses, to breed further maggot ensembles!
By this I mean that the performers are drawing from the bipolar culture they have grown up in, where traditional dances mix with Disney channel, hip hop, salsa and Bollywood, to create exciting, living breathing performances. We have seen how in some cases religious responsibilities are becoming automated actions: in the depiction of a Thimphu family scene, the parents and uncle were depicted gambling, while overweight kids watched TV and a grandmother multitasked, counting her prayer beads mechanically as she too bobbed along to the hip-hop on the screen. I should stress as well that this is the situation in urban Thimphu — we are yet to do the workshops in rural areas. As part of the performances we will be putting on, members of the audience can step forward and take the place of the protagonist, confronting the oppressions and problems they face and rehearsing skills to deal with these problems in real life, drama as a rehearsal for real life action.
Happy Valley has been asked to put on a show for the upcoming SAARC (South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation) conference, where the leaders of every country in South Asia will convene in Thimphu to discuss issues such as climate change and free trade. I worked with Happy Valley on their initial concept: to represent the eight participant countries as the eight lucky symbols of Buddhism, each country using its sign to present a solution to climate change. For example Maldives brings ‘sernya’, the two golden fish that leap out of the sea of Samsara, to repopulate the depleted waterways. This metaphor is sadly apt as the Maldives islands are currently rapidly disappearing under the ocean.
Xochitl had 15 years experience as a ballet dancer before becoming a performance artist, and so assisted Happy Valley in choreographing a very interesting fusion of traditional Bhutanese and contemporary dance. The dancers took some of the strong arcing gestures that Xochitl gave them to represent elemental destruction, and ‘Bhutanified’ them, making them more delicate and lyrical.
Young Bhutanese people (and many Bhutanese people in general) have a sense of humour about their traditions and each other which many outsiders lack. People mock each other in a way that would result in hours of psychotherapy for more image-conscious Westerners, but here operates as a good Buddhist mechanism to stop people taking their appearance too seriously- you just have to get used to how harsh it can be:
“We call him the Black-Necked Crane (an endangered Bhutanese bird), because of that big black mole on his scrawny neck”
“We call him Sumo Rinzin, because of his belly”
‘”Yeah, *patting Stomach*, well I call my belly Gross National Happiness”
We did one workshop as a mock parliamentary debate to decide whether television should be banned or not. The debate ended up being very Buddhist — rather than wanting to claim victory, each side wanted to give victory to their opponent: the pro-television side was concerned that by arguing against traditional values they were betraying their heritage, while the pro-traditional values side ended their argument with the following proverb:
“The apple tree with the most apples bends, therefore we award the debate to our honourable opponents, because unlike in the west, the greatest man here will not try to climb the highest mountain, but lay himself at the lowest point.
“That’s nice Tshering, did Guru Rinpoche [An important medieval religious figure] say that?”
“No sir, I heard it in a movie’”.
Maggotism at work once more.