On an evening in early September, in a modest-sized auditorium called “Nirvana Hall” in McLeod Ganj, Lobsang Wangyal stood at a podium before an audience of about forty people. Wearing a crisp white chupa—a traditional Tibetan top—he began by addressing the audience in Tibetan, then switched to English. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “welcome to the Tibetan Music Awards, 2017.”
The awards, which honour musicians of Tibetan origin, are held in McLeod Ganj every two years. Wangyal, the 47-year-old founder of the event, has produced eight editions of it, starting in 2003. Winners are decided based on online voting by the public—774 votes had been cast this year, Wangyal told the audience. The 2017 awards were co-sponsored by Laughing Buddha Music, a New York-based record company.
Dharamshala, of which McLeod Ganj is a suburb, has been the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1960. One year earlier, the Dalai Lama had arrived in India, seeking asylum from the Chinese state. Many other Tibetans fled their homes around the same time, and much of the community has since lived in diaspora. In light of this history, Wangyal’s award ceremony does more than recognise musicians—it enables Tibetans to feel a sense of community that often eludes them.
Many of the awardees that night were absent from the ceremony, however, because they live far from India, in countries such as Australia, the United States and Switzerland. Two winners were unable to attend because they live under Chinese rule in Tibet, and their movements are restricted beyond the region.
Oddly enough, Wangyal said, the Chinese government makes life for Tibetan musicians quite materially comfortable. “China is actually helping them in productions because they want Tibetans to get distracted,” he told me when we met at a cafe, on the day before the ceremony. “That’s why there are lots of bars, prostitutes, snooker. Apart from politics, China makes life very good.”
Songwriters in Tibet must censor themselves; they “cannot use ‘democracy,’ they cannot use ‘freedom,’” Wangyal said. But these constraints often yield poetic workarounds. “They cannot say ‘Long live Dalai Lama’ or ‘I love Dalai Lama.’ But the metaphors, the subtlety which they are using, say that ‘We love Dalai Lama.’” Wangyal also praised artists living in Tibet in his opening speech, asking Tibetan musicians in exile to “take it up as a challenge to live up to their standards.”
A song composed by artists in Tibet proved to be the night’s runaway success. Called “Phur,” which means “fly” in Tibetan, the song, by a band named Anu Ringlug, alludes to political freedom in the veiled way Wangyal had described to me, urging listeners to fly to a happier place so that they do not lose hope. In the video, shot against picturesque Tibetan scenery, young actors dance in the kind of outfits typically seen in Western pop videos. Audience members clapped along to the beat as the video played.
“Phur” won awards in the categories of “Best Song,” “Best Lyrics,” “Best Music Video,” “Best Male Singer” and “Special Recognition.” Despite the possibility that artists from Tibet, such as the members of Anu Ringlug, may never see the awards’ certificates with their names embossed on them, Wangyal considers it vital to acknowledge their contributions. “It helps us connect as a community,” he said.
Two of the night’s winners were present at the ceremony. Wangdak Dorjee, only 25 years old, bagged the “Best Album” prize for Oneness, his second album. “Oneness is about the unity of all Tibetans,” he told me after the event, wearing a white shawl that had been gifted to him on stage. Dorjee lives in Majnu ka Tila, a Tibetan refugee colony in Delhi. The other winner in attendance, Bhu Chung, won the “Best Love Song” award for his song “Milaam.” “I plan to do a Dalai Lama song,” he said, of his future plans. “But lots of people write songs on the Dalai Lama. So it is difficult to make it famous.” Chung’s family sells sweaters and jackets, and they live in Bylakuppe, a small town in Karnataka with a substantial Tibetan community.
The mood turned sombre towards the end of the night, when Wangyal announced that a musician known as Dubey, from Tibet’s Amdo province, was receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award. Dubey, who died this February at the age of 49, produced over 100 albums and introduced the mandolin to Tibetan music. His best known song is a plaintive tribute to the Dalai Lama called “Faraway Friend,” which begins: “Although high in the shimmering sky, the golden sun is smiling/ The dark pain of separation was never extinguished/ Faraway friend, it was never extinguished.”
The Tibetan Music Awards is one of multiple events that Wangyal organises. This October alone, he put on two more: the Free Spirit Film Festival, which screened movies from around the world, and Miss Himalaya, a beauty pageant for women from the Himalayan region. Wangyal has also organised several editions of Miss Tibet, a pageant solely for contestants of Tibetan heritage.
Wangyal is also a journalist, and he runs an online news website called the Tibet Sun. The reports carried on the site are often, but not always, about Tibet. “I ran two stories on Gurmeet Ram Rahim,” he said, referring to the godman who was recently convicted of rape. Wangyal’s events business is sustained by his earnings from the Tibet Sun and the goodwill of his friends, though he admitted that he is dealing with debt. He told me he works for 12 hours on most days, and for eight hours on days when he is on vacation.
In March 2017, Wangyal obtained an Indian passport—a somewhat unusual move among Tibetans living here, in part because of how difficult it can be to wade through the red tape involved. The Indian Citizenship Act, 1955, states that any individual born in India between 26 January 1950 and 1 July 1987 is entitled to citizenship. But Wangyal, despite meeting this criterion, has had to pursue two legal battles in the Delhi High Court to obtain his passport. His frustration apparent, he told me, “This is how India works. This is why India is still a developing country. India will not become a developed country because they are not practising what’s written in the paper.”
Wangyal is deeply attached to India, however. Although his brother has settled down in the United States and has been trying to convince him to move there, Wangyal does not want to leave. “I complain because I love India,” he said. “If you don’t love, you don’t complain.”
Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.