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Mihir S Sharma: Mountain songs

Mihir S Sharma 

Mihir S Sharma

I have long been fascinated by a poem about a yak.

The poem, or song, is called "Yak Legpai Lhadar Gawo", and it is about a particularly good-looking yak - the title itself apparently means "gorgeous and splendid yak" - that must, at the orders of a local lord, be slaughtered. The part that really interested me is that it is sung not in the voice of the herder having to give up the yak, but in the voice of the yak itself. The yak - who, without any modesty, calls himself Lhadar, which presumably means "splendid" or possibly "gorgeous" - sadly says his life of "dancing along the base of distant meadows" must end, because he "has no choice not to go" now that a "heavy command" has come from a "powerful lord".

It was featured - without, unfortunately, a suitably gorgeous yak - in a film called Travellers and Magicians, made by a prominent Bhutanese monk about a decade ago. That version of the poem was sung by a Bhutanese musician named Sonam Dorji, whom I got to hear a few days ago early one morning at the Mountain Echoes literature festival in Thimphu. There are a few clips of Mr Dorji on YouTube; do go and watch them.

The Yak Song - as it is commonly called now - is actually atypical of the school of Bhutanese folk poetry it represents, lozey. Lozey is typically about verbal battles, and originated in the bragging and insult competitions between rival herders - a feature of pastoral societies from Celtic Ireland to pre-Columbian North America. But there is something alluring in the idea that an inherently aggressive form of literature should reach its highest point - or, certainly, its point of greatest popularity - in a song that attacks authority as well as animal slaughter.

There is something a little unique about it, too. Which isn't surprising, since Bhutan is a few decades into a path that is pretty unique among the community of nations. It combines elements of paternalistic authoritarianism - no smoking anywhere, an injunction to always wear Bhutanese formal dress when on business - with an emphasis on what it calls "Gross National Happiness", instead of economic output. This is far from as content-free as you'd imagine; there are 70-something indices that the government is supposed to track; its constitution mandates the exact minimum proportion of the land that must be covered by forest. Fortunately for Bhutan, it has the ability to make a great deal of money by generating hydroelectric power and selling it to a power-deficit India - Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay told me in a conversation on the sidelines of Mountain Echoes that it was his country's "golden, green gift". That allows it, to an extent, to create its own path.

A crucial part of that path is the question of its own national identity. A great deal of it - more than I, certainly, am comfortable with on principle - is religious and spiritual. Bhutan is the only purely Himalayan Buddhist country on earth, its prosperity and peace a sharp rebuke to the People's Republic of China's claims that only its Han Chinese colonisation could have helped Tibet's development. Because of this unitary identity, other voices - like those of the ethnic Nepalese in the country's south - may have been lost.

But the creation of a national identity for smaller countries like Bhutan - perhaps for all countries but our gloriously and irreducibly multi-ethnic one - is closely tied up in the idea of a national literature. A national literature, I believe, cannot be based entirely around religious motifs; nor can it be exclusively traditional. This is something of a challenge, therefore, for Bhutan, one of the places where its path of mandated "happiness" runs into a bit of a roadblock. I looked out, at Mountain Echoes, for signs of this evolving Bhutanese creative tradition. It would not, certainly, be one easily imposed from above. And there were hints - not of real dissent, but of the questioning that will inevitably accompany choices such as those that Bhutan has made. Some of the students in the audience were anonymous bloggers; more than one hoped to write a historical novel. Clearly, everywhere, the three-generation historical novel is the essential starting-point for any nationalist canon. Most intriguing, perhaps, was an open mic session where an 18-year-old student brought the house down with a discussion on exactly how he, personally, represented Gross National Happiness. It was sardonic and affectionate and proud all at the same time, and I imagine those, too, will characterise Bhutanese writing when it emerges and begins to be classified.

And, hopefully, the foundational epic of any such literature will be that poem about a yak. The original version, I was told on the lovely, winding streets of Thimphu, was an hour or so long, and had so impressed a former king that he summoned its author, Chuni Dorji, to his court and appointed him Court Hunter And Poet, a post that I suspect could not exist anywhere outside Bhutan. Mr Dorji, in his 80s, supposedly still lives in a remote village. His story and his song, a long meditation on natural beauty and arbitrary power, are both exactly different enough to fit a country striving daily to be dissimilar from any other.

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First Published: Tue, May 27 2014. 21:48 IST