Phantom of the Tibetan Opera

In this delightful personal narrative, renowned flautist, Milind Date, provides us a peek into the importance of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamshala – home to the Tibetan opera Lhamo, and Tibetan National Anthem, no less. Photos and text by Milind Date.

The Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) is a unique institution in India. It is a residential school for Tibetan art forms including music, dance, and Lhamo or Tibetan Opera. Established in 1959 by the Dalai Lama under the Government of India’s Societies Act, the TIPA was founded with the purpose of preserving, nurturing, and keeping Tibetan culture alive and thriving.

Just a kilometre from the main square of McLeodganj, TIPA is located at a peaceful spot, overlooking the town of McLeodganj. When I visited TIPA for the first time, it was the November of 1998. Most of the teachers were out performing at various festivals around the globe, but the students were at the institute – which suited me well. I was introduced to them over countless cups of tea. They told me about their Tibetan santoor, which had gone completely out of tune. Now santoor is a kind of dulcimer with 90-100 strings. Students typically spend the first year or two learning just how to get the awesome instrument in tune. I decided to try my flautist hand at fixing it. With a little bit of luck, I managed to get it back in better shape. The students were overjoyed and it became my permanent ID at the institute. For years thereafter, if someone from Pune visited TIPA, they would make it a point to narrate the incident.

Once you enter the TIPA complex, you reach a multi-purpose, square courtyard that serves as the venue for big music concerts and students’ practice sessions. In the evening, it doubles up as a basketball court or some such! To the right is a longish building with a lovely auditorium that can seat up to 300. Next to it are the classrooms. And then there is the big open-air stage, along with the hostels, and admin blocks.

But what’s unique about the institute is the Tailoring Department that makes traditional Tibetan dresses. The department also makes curtains and tents and other props used for the Lhamo. TIPA also houses a Carpentry Department where artisans make various musical instruments. They work on customised cases for each instrument so that the performers can travel with them on international flights. Limited funding is an issue the institute faces, so they try their best to make everything they need. A visit to TIPA always makes me wonder that for a nation that has been a cradle for so many civilisations, we have so few institutes where the pursuit of music, dance, and theatre all comes together so beautifully in one place.

TIPA is currently building a recording studio, replete with some neat equipment. I recently had the opportunity to meet with the institute head and record a song there. I have also had several opportunities to work with TIPA musicians. On one of my trips I was introduced to Tibetan flautist Lobsang Gyaltsen. He is a student at TIPA. It was a treat to walk about with him in the picturesque mountain paths. He would settle down on a wayside stone and produce extraordinary Himalayan tunes. Needless to say, we had loads of musical ‘exchanges’!

Recently I had the privilege to work on an arrangement for the Tibetan national anthem, and the folks at TIPA were kind enough to be delighted with what they called “such a big sound” for their national anthem. Plans are afoot to soon record it with a philharmonic orchestra.

Every now and then TIPA stages performances of traditional music and dance. I have been lucky to watch a few such concerts with several Indian and foreign dignitaries in attendance. These enthralling events always evoke a standing ovation, and I hope that you will have the opportunity to attend one of these events when you visit Dharamshala and McLeodganj the next time around.

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