The controversy, at least among the online communities, surrounding the recent Miss Bhutan pageant is quite serious. Let’s forget about how the pageant was supposedly rigged or how it was fixed or how the organizers lied to the contestants or how the contestants failed to be ‘Bhutanese’. Let us not care about any of these gossipy stuff except that our sacred mask dance was prostituted to please some members of the audience in the name of creativity.
Granted that the organizers of Miss Bhutan 2010 were seeking to explore and take our culture further by giving a modern vent to traditional mask dance, but in the event you have offended a lot of Bhutanese. You may laugh at our traditional view of things, but we are right in our own ways for the fact that you are right to transform our tradition in your own convenience.
Below are some facts about mask dance in Bhutan for the reading pleasure of Miss Bhutan organizers:
The mask dances, known as cham, are said to bring blessings to onlookers. The origins of the mask dances date back to the 8th century. In some cases dancers will wrap their heads with cloth strips to protect them from the weight of the masks (the mask of the Shinje).
Dances are grouped in three broad categories: dramatic dances that push morality, dances that purify and protect places from harmful spirits, and dances that celebrate victories by Buddhism and Guru Rinpoche, a saint who came to Bhutan in the 8th century and who some consider the Second Buddha.
The religious dances are symbolic and have a common theme to destroy or trample the evil spirits. The swords of the dancers symbolize cutting through ignorance while the drums drive away all malevolent evils and demons. Witnessing the dances is believed to remove defilement and take one closer towards attaining nirvana or enlightenment.
Bhutanese people see dance as an extension of their religious and social lives because the movement reflects their deep devotion, compassion, tolerance, and harmonious living.
The dancers, who wear flowing, colorful costumes, take on the roles of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons, the dead and animals. Their movements tell stories about history and fantasy.
The dances are accompanied by the music of cymbals, drums, large and small horns, conches and bells.
Sometimes the choreography includes masked clowns, atsaras, who mimic the religious dancers. They are the only ones who are allowed to mock religion in a society that treats religious things with respect.
So, what the organizers of Miss Bhutan 2010 could have done was to engage atsaras to dance to the tune of Dzongkha songs.
Here is some facts about Shazam Cham, the dance that was performed at the Miss Bhutan pageant:
In the 8th century there was a Wind God who created so much of trouble and unhappiness to the people. Guru subdued this wind god, thereby restoring peace and happiness. The Stag dance portrays the subjugation of the Wind God by Guru Rinpoche. As to mark his victory, Guru Rimpoche rode the stag that happened to be the mount of the God of the Wind, when he subdued the wind god and appeased all beings by establishing peace and happiness. It was the first incarnations of the Nam Nying (Namkhe Ngingpo) who revealed the treasure of this dance. It is believed that he found the effigy of the stag and created the stag dance. During this dance, the appreciation of the virtuous people is demonstrated to all the beings destined to be converted in the future. After all the agitators of the world have been overcome, happiness and peace will reign supreme. – Source Bhutan2008
Some form of art can be explored and modified to ooze out our creativity, but some are better left as it is. The art of Mask Dance is sacred, meaning that it is spiritual, choreographed by Buddhist saints. Every move the mask dancer makes has a spiritual meaning. Why must it be accompanied by religious instruments?
Boedra and Zhungdra can be danced to their respective songs. A boedra cannot be danced to a zhungdra tune and a zhungdra cannot be danced to a boedra song. How in the world is it possible to choreograph the sacred mask dance to a boedra/rigsar song? It is ridiculous and quite offensive.
What is really surprising is the lack of response/comment from the organizers. They have not even updated their official website. It is the norms of official sites to go live online during such contests, but sadly for Miss Bhutan, their website appears abandoned.