Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Happy Losar! - 2133 - Year of the Fire Dog



At ten, I had an allowance enough to get myself an ice cream after school, buy the occasional book, add Picture of hilt from petrus gallery.net
to my stamp collection, and so on. But I soon discovered that if I eschewed Bulgarian stamps, I could cross Janpath after school to where refugees from the failed uprising against Mao's occupation of Tibet were selling off family treasure, along with other handcrafted goodies, and, after rummaging about in the little boxes at the front of the stalls, scoop up a bit of treasure myself. To be sure, I didn't have enough to acquire anybody's ancient family prayer wheel, or great sword, or ritual dagger sheathed in opal-encrusted silver, but, with a bit of restraint, I could buy rings with dragons clutching globes of jade, a belt with Tantric motifs, turquoise- and coral-studded parrures, all in an idiom that was distinctly non-Indian, yet easily understandable from India. To this day, I have no clue whether the big, smiling women in their black bakkus -- sorry, chubas -- their brightly striped married-lady aprons and middle-parted and tightly braided hair were humoring me, because it seemed so outrageous. Yet, despite one visit to Dharamsala long ago, and many more to Darjeeling since, and the enduring presence of Chamba Lama in Kolkata, I never thought again until recently about how sad those early sales were, let alone that failure to regain the homeland that led such glamorous people to make India their home in exile.

Here's how Kiran Desai describes their exodus in The Inheritance of Loss, as seen from
Kalimpong: "Monks had streamed through the forests, garnet lines of fire pouring down the mountains, as they escaped from Tibet along the salt and wool trade routes. Aristocrats had arrived, too, Lhasa beauties dancing waltzes at the Gymkhana Ball, amazing the locals with their cosmopolitan style. But for a long time, there were severe food shortages, as there always were when political trouble arrived on the hillside."


Thi
s Losar ushered in the Year of the Fire Dog, which is special, for reasons I'll explore in another post, so when

Dominic Farinacci, playing for Harlem in the Himalayas

Maura Moynihan called it Tibetan Independence Day, I had no doubt it should indeed be celebrated as such. The weather in NYC cooperated yesterday, dipping well below 30 degrees and tossing in a brisk wind. Most tropicalized AISers remained indoors, see lament below. Stalwart Johnny Close, on the other hand, said, "How can I resist? Two ladies are asking me!" and made the journey to Chelsea, despite the fact that he a) prefers jazz on the car radio, smooth, chill, whatever, and b) looks about as happy facing down the wind howling along Seventh Avenue as he might huddled in darkest night in a hutment far downwind of the Potala Palace, shivering in felt blankets even while wrapping his mittened hands around a nice warm mug of salted red tea laced with yak butter. I exhorted him to take the view that the correct response to cold is to unbutton one's loden and march hatless from brazier to brazier, but he wasn't having any of it. Wisely, he plied me with Scotch mitout ice on arrival, and perfect hostess Maura, seeing my tötung, vanished and quickly returned in a fine steel-grey chuba, with a string of opals and agates.

Losar predates both Buddhism and Tantrism in Tibet, as it is part of the much older Bön religion, and evolved from a festival initiated to celebrate the use of a lunar calendar for agriculture. The one-day version I'm told we are allowed nowadays in NYC by the Dalai Lama seems to focus quietly on an auspicious start for a New Year. But the main first day celebration, when done whole, involves eleborate sacred ceremonies where huge quantities of incense are burned - although feasting, firecrackers, performances and other merriment are a major element in the still extant original fifteen-day version.

Maura took us on a tour of her favorite parts of the extraordinary collection amassed by Donald and Shelley Rubin, and In the spirit of cultural connectedness, we spent some time exclaiming in recognition of Desi dieties and the similarity of the writing to Devanagari script. Maura is Desi, and is also an exponent of Bharat Natyam, which is why she was demonstrating mudras before the avalokiteshwara paintings (above). Eventually, Phelgie Kelden joined us and took us to look at an astonishing gilt bronze statuette -16th Century (Gregorian), if I recall correctly - which seemed to depict both a thousand-armed Chenresig and his consort. Phelgie explained that compassion is considered a masculine virtue, and wisdom a feminine attribute, and that the Divine, no matter how enraged, remains nevertheless distinct and different from a demon. How clear the transition from the more pictorially-minded Desi depiction of Shiv-Shakti, abstracted here into the father-mother Yab-Yum in Tibet, and from there no doubt abstracted much further and more solemnly into Yin-Yang in mainstream Chinese culture! Yet so fast are the cultural bonds, going both ways, that the Tibetan Year of the Fire Dog is also the Chinese Year of the Fire Dog.

The Subcontinental people present included a Delhi-Lahori group, including Sophie Ali, about to leave for Delhi to start a new tv show
for older children, to be called The Magic Tent (she had a portfolio of beautiful drawings of the characters), a tiny Kolkata contingent consisting of Rahul and Sharon Basu and myself, and many others in semi-darkness. AISers missing by an inch (or a few miles) on such short notice included Sanjiv Handa, Brenda Isenberg, Grant Fox, Joel Baird, who was recording with Jeff Campbell, aka Orchestra Naif, and possibly John Blee, who was at the 67th Street Armory, relinquishing the last of thirty-three (33) paintings...ah well.Phelgie and Maura at the end of the party (pics are frames from my footage on Tootiloot's dvcam)

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