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Mountain Echoes 2018: Bhutan's festival of literature, art and culture feels like a true celebration

Now in its ninth year, the Mountain Echoes festival of literature, art and culture held at Thimpu between 23 and 25 August, addressed an exacting set of expectations. Hosted in the idyllic, eco-friendly setting of the Royal University of Bhutan, the fest had an unpretentious air with hundreds of students jostling for space in a small auditorium to listen to their favourite authors and musicians. The sessions chosen with unfettered eclecticism by festival directors Namita Gokhale, Pramod Kumar, Siok Sian Dorji, Tshering Tashi, and Mita, the CEO of Siyahi, teasingly tore the boundaries of different art forms, novelised slices of narratives and serious monologues and dialogues — some of them achingly poignant, sparking imagination and fuelling new ideas.

Corralled for the most part in a single performance, conversation space, this year’s edition coincided with festivities marking the 50th anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Bhutan. The lineup included acclaimed columnists, editors, authors, teachers, philosophers, poets, musicians, dancers, artists, comedians, actors, film-makers, environmentalists, heritage conservationists and theatre activists. The festival began with a traditional Rapa dance performed by students of the Royal Academy of Performing Arts followed by buddhist chants by nuns of the Bhutan Nuns Foundation. A riveting, pitch-perfect opening address by Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, the royal patron of the festival set the tone of this unapologetically intimate festival. Dressed in a beautiful blue ‘kira’, she said that it was her belief that Buddhism, the shared spiritual heritage of India and Bhutan, is the unchanging constant in the relationship between the two countries. She reminisced about the time when the third king of Bhutan and Pandit Nehru laid the foundation of India-Bhutan partnership. Following Nehru’s visit, Bhutan launched its first five-year plan in 1961, which along with the second, was financed by India.

The sessions shoehorned into the programme on the opening day included conversations of rare originality of voice and vision — with Khenpo Sonam Phuntsok on the spiritual wisdom of sutras, Dave Goulson on bumblebee ecology and conservation, Aparajita Jain, Malvika Singh and Tshering Penjore on living museums, Valmik Thapar’s exposition on the natural treasures of Rajasthan and their revival, Usha Uthup’s inimitable session with one of Bhutan’s iconic rock musicians — Tenzin Dorji, and swapping of stories of Nilanjana Roy’s cats and Kunzang Choden’s stray dog, Dawa in a delightfully whacky session called ‘The Wildings Meets Dawa’. Then there was Vani Tripathi Tikoo romancing the text of Naseeruddin Shah’s memoir, And Then One Day, and Naseer’s own grotty reality-check of the state of Indian cinema. For me, the high point was Sarah Kay’s evocative, spoken word poetry, ‘Love Letter from a Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire’, ‘ The Type’, and a poignant poem written in memory of her elementary school principal: each with a special resonance and coming wholly to life when it was performed. Also Aditya Roy’s ‘Gurudakshina’, a performance that combined martial arts, theatre and music.

 Mountain Echoes 2018: Bhutans festival of literature, art and culture feels like a true celebration

Scenes from Mountain Echoes 2018. Images via Facebook

Book lovers continued to queue on the second day to lose themselves in the magic of words and ideas, music and dance. The morning came alive with the beats of Drametse Ngachamm, a sacred dance from east Bhutan. My crotchety scepticism about the straitjacket of festival programming was replaced by a grudging admiration for the chic-contrariness that defined the choice of subjects and speakers. An effervescent dialogue between Sanjna Kapoor and Ratna Pathak Shah on theatre in contemporary India and their own individual trysts with theatre was juxtaposed with unravelling of the myth of the Yeti by Daniel Taylor and Tshering Tashi. Ajoy Bose, Bhutan’s heartthrob Dawa Drakpa and Usha Uthup shared their Beatles stories and songs, enthralling the audience when they were joined by Naseeruddin Shah. Sanjoy Hazarika, Tshering Tashi, Somi Roy were in conversation with Namita Gokhale on the underreported region of the Himalayan Arc, it’s complex politics, fragile natural history and the possibility of an interconnected future.

A lively session appropriately named ‘If Rivers were to Speak’, explored the nuances of poetry as self-expression with poets Esther Syiem and Namgyal Tshering in conversation with Chador Wangmo, author of several books for children in Dzongkha and English. Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak Shah were at their theatrical best when they enacted poems and stories of Vikram Seth and James Thurber. Tony Robinson Smith spoke of his wanderlust in an incredibly inspiring session. My own session with Dr Sonal Mansingh followed, with revelatory glimpses of the woman behind the celebrated persona. The fusion between modern medicine and traditional healing was highlighted by Dr Bjorn Metgaard, the Danish author of Medical History of Bhutan. Two extremely young authors, Pema Euden and Zuni Chopra, who debuted when they were adolescents, explained with elan what they thought was special about their work. Another afternoon dusted with magic ended with a performance by Gokab, a group that uses dance to communicate with young audiences.

The last day began with a song that paid tribute to the friendship between India and Bhutan. Andrew Quintman’s session on ‘The Songs of Milarepa’, with musician Chimi Wangmo’s exquisite rendition of Milarepa’s poetry, delighted the audience. Quintman, who has spent three decades researching the life of Milarepa later tweeted, ‘Of all places to discuss Milarepa, this is the best place to be discussing him’. Coming next, Daniel Taylor flagged the need for community support to develop and preserve natural differences. In a conversation on ‘Challenges of Journalism’, Suhasini Haidar and Tenzing Lamsang talked about the obstacles being faced by journalists. Somi Roy and Pramod Kumar discussed the chronicling of personal histories through family photos by focusing on the life and times of novelist, essayist and playwright, Binodini. Bhutan’s leading comedians, Gyem Tshering and Phurba Thinley interspaced their conversation with quirky comments that made the audience laugh. The exchange of energy between hip-hop performers who dominated two sessions and the audience was also extraordinary. The aspirations of young dreamers, Charu Singh’s conversation with Quintman, Moon Moon Sen’s personal journey and Nilanjana Roy’s session on ‘Eating Books: Reading, Writing and Creativity’, kept the audience engaged, as did a voluble panel discussion on acting, filmmaking and the freedom to create. A plethora of parallel workshops on music, theatre for children, crafting stories, performance poetry, the Dzongkha script, storytelling through sign language and Karma Jurmi’s workshop on calligraphy, crackled with creative energy. The Royal Textile Academy was the venue of two painting exhibitions especially curated for the festival.

Leaving some of the sessions behind, I managed to explore the city with my partner, amazed at the changes that have come about since my last trip around a decade ago. With dust and smoke billowing from construction sites, several high-rises, and a proliferation of shops, bars and internet cafes, Thimpu no longer looks lost in time. It is a city that is engaging with change, but cautiously. Tourism, not permitted till 1974, is still tightly controlled. The romantic, mystical feel of the city is intact. Its forested hills, gurgling river, crimson-clad monks, Buddhist prayer flags fluttering against ice-blue skies, well-fed,  furry dogs sprawled all over the place, stone houses with ornate, painted Buddhist motifs in red, gold and brown, the lovely Termalinca resort where the Queen Mother graciously hosted the entire Mountain Echoes gang, and the night-view of the exquisitely lit-up Tashichho Dzong — was enough to leave us enthralled. We skipped the special Masala Chowk dinner at Taj Tashi to eat jomja rice and buckwheat pancakes, and bowls of ema datse, delicious stewed chillies and cheese, at a hip Clock Tower Square restaurant, getting a taste of the nightlife at Mojo Park, one of the coolest live music clubs in Thimpu.

On another clear morning, we drove to the enchanting Dochula Pass crowned with 108 spectacular chortens built to commemorate Bhutanese soldiers who died fighting Bodo insurgents in 2003. We returned  without being able to see Gangkhar Puensum, the highest peak in Bhutan, which was shrouded by huge dragon-shaped clouds, a little disappointed but pleased with our stock of red and green mountain apples and dried yak cheese bought from little kiosks along the road. We also drove through lovely paddy fields, and quaint little wooden bridges of Paro to take a close look at Taktsang Goemba, the tiger-nest monastery perched precariously on a narrow stone ledge about 900 metres above Paro Valley. Built in 1692, legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava flew here from Tibet on the back of a tiger. We were washed over with joy just gazing at the nest, in that land of happiness, magic, legends, myths and poetry.

The idea of putting together a litfest as unique as this took shape in July during a dinner-table conversation at the Queen Mother’s residence. Namita was present, as was Ravi Singh, then at Penguin, and, author Pavan Varma, the erstwhile Indian ambassador to Bhutan. With Bhutan slowly opening up to the outside world, it was clearly an idea whose time had come. “It took a lot of dedicated and sustained work to take the shape that it eventually did,” recalls Namita. I was reminded of Bob Dylan’s lyric ‘And she aches just like a woman’, when I looked at Mita and Namita at the fest, with their somewhat strung-out, anxious faces, and scrupulous attention to detail. It was a festival with a fairytale feel. There were no dissenting flashmobs, unspoken attacks or disagreements. Everyone seemed to be in a state of poetic reverie, revelling in the serene conversations, immersive workshops, performances and art shows. Nestled in that oasis of calm, one did not mind the sensory overload.

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Updated Date: Sep 15, 2018 20:25:37 IST