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  • Le Théâtre Ache Lhamo, Jeux et Enjeux D'Une Tradition Tibétaineby Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy
  • Jacques Pimpaneau
LE THÉÂTRE ACHE LHAMO, JEUX ET ENJEUX D'UNE TRADITION TIBÉTAINE. By Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, Institut Belge des Hautes Etudes Chinoises, vol. 33. Leuven, Paris, Bristol (CT): Peeters, XXV + 940 pp., 39 pages of photos and 2 maps. €115.

The word Tibet, for many Westerners, brings to mind Tantric Buddhism and the difficulties for Tibetans to retain their cultural identity after the 1950 invasion of the People's Republic of China. But, except for specialists, the word lhamoor ache lhamomight still not be well recognized. It can be translated as "Tibetan opera," the term used by the UNESCO in 2009, because of the importance of singing and instrumental music, but the author prefers the word "theatre" (p. 5). It is a popular opera, not reserved for an elite. With the exception of translations of some librettos in French by Jacques Bacot (1921 [English 1990]) and in English by Marion H. Duncan (1955, 1967), only a limited number of articles were available (cf. Henrion-Dourcy's bibliography at the end of the book), as well as two books written by people who did not even know Tibetan and only had a superficial knowledge of Tibetan civilization. Now, thanks to Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, we have a description of this theatre, which leaves no aspect of it neglected. The subject of this book is the lhamoup to 1950, before the transformations imposed by Chinese interference, though, at the end, there is an account of lhamo's recent evolution in Tibet and among the Tibetans in exile. I do not think there exists in a single book a study of a type of theatre as complete as this one on lhamo. This work covers its history, its theatrical technique, and its links with Tibetan society, [End Page 244]mentality, and religion. The thirteen-page table of contents shows that no aspect has been forgotten. Such a book was possible because its author is perspicacious, erudite in Tibetan language and civilization, a remarkable musicologist, and a clear-sighted anthropologist specialized in dramatic entertainments.

The book is the reference on Tibetan opera for anybody interested in Tibetan culture and theatre, and it is more than just a work by a specialist only for specialists. It is accessible and inviting to even general readers who know nothing of Tibet. Moreover, it is not only a book on lhamo,itisalsoa fascinating book on Tibetan civilization. This is not a simple introduction—such volumesare often marred by questionable generalities. Instead this is a detailed exploration of a precise subject—the place of this theatre in Tibetan society and culture. This provides an opportunity for the author to take on wider topics: social organization (more domainial than feudal), justice (which is responsibility of the village chief, except in serious cases), taxation (the troupes paid their tax by giving performances for the State, cf. the table p. 307), relations between texts and orality, the coexistence of Buddhism with earlier creeds anterior to Buddhism's arrival from India, power (and Tibetan evolutions from the period of ancient kings to the power taken by the Dalai Lama in the fifteenth century), the mentalities of different social classes, and religion as it is lived by people ("For each valley, its own dialect; for each lama, its own religion," p. 214). And the term "religion without name" that the author takes from the famed Tibetologist Rolf Stein is much more adequate than the frequently used "popular religion." From this book, I learnt the Tibetan meaning of "blessing," and that theatre is linked with the pleasure of picnics—certainly more convivial than Western halls where it is strictly forbidden to talk, to move, or even to cough. This book by Henrion-Dourcy and those of Rolf Stein (1959, 1987) are the best texts from which to obtain solid knowledge of Tibetan culture.

The influence of Indian theatre, which is at the origin of lhamo, and the limits of what was borrowed from India, are clearly explained. A possible link with Chinese xiquis also considered, but the characteristics of xiqu...


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