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Reviewed by:
  • Tibetan Sacred Dance, A Journey into the Religious and Folk Traditions
  • Colin Mackerras
Tibetan Sacred Dance, A Journey into the Religious and Folk Traditions. By Ellen Pearlman. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2002. viii + 192 pp. $29.95 (paper).

There are two parts to this book. The first deals with the Tibetan sacred dance, orcham; the second, with the folk dance or Tibetan drama called achi lhamo. Both parts take up history, stories, performing techniques, music, and social context, such as occasions or festivals calling for performance. Personally, I found the second part on the achi lhamo especially interesting, and I thought that the author brought out the distinction between the cham, which is totally religious in function, and the somewhat more secular folk drama very well. She has done a very good job in conveying her enthusiasm and admiration for the beauty and depth of Tibetan culture, an enthusiasm I share.

Ellen Pearlman tends to exaggerate the paucity of material in English, and there are some quite important works on Tibetan dance and drama lacking in the bibliography, such as those by Marion Duncan, who is not even mentioned, and the great Italian Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci, only one of whose translated works is listed. However, she is quite right that the Tibetan sacred dance and drama has attracted too little attention from the Western world and I definitely commend a book like the present one for trying to fill the gap and for its up-to-date coverage.

This book is not high scholarship. It is written in a simple style that does not take account of complexity. The bibliography is quite short and all its items are in English. There is very little annotation. These comments are not meant as criticism because the book does not claim to be high scholarship. It is written by a Buddhist devotee who has become enthralled by the Tibetan performing and other arts because of the vast influence of Buddhism on Tibetan culture. The book is dedicated to three people, including her Buddhist teacher of thirty years and the fourteenth Dalai Lama.

I entirely sympathize with her writing this book because she believes inBuddhism and admires Tibetan culture. However, my impression is that she is a bit too uncritical, especially in the first section on sacred dance. I suspect that she would have expressed disapproval of using human thigh bones and skulls for musical instruments if it had been anybody else but the Tibetans who did this. See the comments on pp. 92 and 93 concerning hand drums "made from either wood of human skulls" and thigh-bone trumpets, usually made from a human thigh bone.

This is basically a coffee-table book. There are numerous photographs, both color and black-and-white. These are admirable in several ways. They cover a range of periods, including some very old ones, thus showing something of the recent history of Tibet's performing arts. A particularly interesting one is of a Mongoliancham performance taken in 1891 and kept in the superb Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. There are numerous pictures showing the Buddhist features of the dances and music. And there are also numerous pictures illustrating the dances and dramas themselves. In other words, the illustrations fit very well with the text. Almost all the pictures are [End Page 209] of very good quality. It is the pictures that really make the book, bringing the performing arts alive.

One feature common in coffee-table books that makes the book easier to read and more accessible is the pages set aside in a different format that take up a particularly interesting topic. These topics range from the role played by the various dalai lamas in the sacred dance to the fourteenth Dalai Lama's recollection of enjoying the folk opera during his boyhood. Although they break up the text, they do give highly readable accounts of important subjects relevant to the dance and opera.

The author's research comes mainly from Dharamsala in India, where the fourteenth Dalai Lama has set up his government-in-exile. Naturally enough, the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts has provided her with a great deal of...


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