What’s Doing in New York?

From HIMAL, Volume 6, Issue 6 (NOV/DEC 1993)

The Lower Hudson Valley is on the other side of the globe from the mountains of South Central Asia. But then New York City, at the mouth of the Hudson River, is the cultural capital of the world, where no region goes unrepresented.

A quick review of the different cultural activities in the Big Apple during the month of October showed enough of the Himalaya on offer — from film showings to talkathons to photographic exhibitions. At the same time, it was clear once again that, as is true elsewhere in the West, here too ‘Himalaya’ means mostly the Tibetan civilisation. The rest of the region and its peoples, are absent.

Creating the Sand Mandala -at the World Trade Center

Over at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art in Staten Island (a borough which just decided through a referendum to secede from New York City), photographs of Mustang are on display. They were taken a year ago by four ladies who had trekked up to Lo Manthang.

In an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the paintings of Lodoy Sangpo Gangshar (“Hymalian folk painter”, says his visiting card) are on display. Gangshar is a Tibetan refugee —just barely, for he comes from a village a day’s walk north of Syabrubesi on the Trisuli River — who was among those picked up in the “immigration lottery” run by the United States Government for Tibetans in Nepal and India. He lives in Oakland, California.

Gangshar’s appealing watercolours make a statement, not of Tibet but of a modernising Nepal, showing parallax-bereft views of Syabrubesi (the refugee camp-village where he grew up), carpet washing in Kathmandu, the Trisuli power house, airplanes, and a submarine in Rani Pokhari.

In downtown Manhattan, a Wheel of Time Sand Mandala was being prepared in the lobby of World Trade Center. The Tibetan ritual art was being painstakingly created over a four-week period by monks from the Namgyal Monastery. After it is completed, the mandala will be swept up and the sand consecrated in the Hudson River, on 30 November, according to the Samaya Foundation, which raises funds for the Tibetan cause. The monks´ performance also formed part of a well-orchestrated public relations effort by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the World Trade Centre, to attract business after a tenant flight due to the massive terrorist bombing of May this year.

In the East Village, a commercial theatre was running the film Baraka, “a documentary about the Earth and the people”, which takes in panoramic sweeps of the nature and human civilisation. The very first frame, before even the credits, shows the view of the extreme upper Khumbu, from Chomolongma to AmaDablam, as seen from Tengboche. This is followed by languid shots of devotees in Bhaktapur, walking among mists and temples. The film, shot with specially made wide-format Imax cameras in 70mm, has no narration, only music (including Sufi, Balinese Gamelan, and chanting monks from Dharamsala).

At the other extreme, there was too much narration at a preview of a one-man show called “Psychodessy” in Canal Street, near Chinatown. The flier promised that the showman, a young American magician who had trekked with millionaire Dick Bass to Chomolongma Base Camp a few years previously, would have a sort of mixed-media presentation built around his Khumbu trip. What he had on offer, instead, was an amateurish slide show that might well have been entitled: “My heroic trek to Mount Everest Base Camp”, replete with reversed transparencies, exaggerated claims, embroidered memory, and foolish talk (including one of “this 133 year old woman who came down from her home at 25,000 feet just to meet me and see me perform.”) The misinformation was near-total, with an image of Shiva identified as the Buddha, and every hulk of a mountain along the Imja Khola trail being pointed out as Everest.

For relief, therefore, one turned into a bookshop, to find that Kevin Bubriski’s picture book “Portrait of Nepal” has just been released It contains black and white pictures of Humla, Gorkha, Kathmandu and Janakpur. Right off the bat, in mid-month, it received the first place in documentary photography category of the Golden Light Photography Book Awards, ahead of many famous names in the New York photography world. (Some of the pictures can be seen in a photo essay in Himal’s next, Jan/Feb 1994, issue).

There were a few other non-Tibetan happenings, to be sure. The United Nations General Assembly, for ex ample, heard Nepali Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala (who also spoke before the Asia Society, unveiled a B.P. Koirala bust, planted a B.P. Koirala sapling in Central Park, and met with the editors of The New York Times) and Bhutan´s Foreign Minister Dawa Tshering. And the Kashmir issue surfaced again and again at the United Nations, as India and Pakistan raised the pitch of the quarrel.

The Asia Society’s logo, incidentally is a Kathmandu-crafted bronze lion. Even though the logo is Nepali, however, the Society itself does not ‘do’ Nepal well. Kathmandu, as an important cultural hub of the Himalayan region, rarely figures in the Society’s programmes. A look at the programme for 1993 showed nothing on Nepal (other than the Koirala dinner). A meet-the-authors programme was scheduled for 16 November for the newly released book Tibet: Reflections from the Wheel of Life by Thomas Kelly, Carroll Dunham and Ian Baker, all Kathmandu-based.

There are many shops selling Himalayan bric-a-brac in Manhattan, but Tenzing and Pema: Presents of the Mind is of a different genre. A stone´s throw away from the Asia Society on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, partly owned by Sikkimese, this shop sells Americana, and has not a whiff of Himalaya about it despite the quintessentially Himalayan name. It seemed to be doing brisk business with Manhattan´s affluent Upper Eastsiders one recent Sunday. It was a shop for “children of all ages”, the shop assistant said.

While Tibetan Refugees have a very high profile here, hardly anyone has heard of refugees from Bhutan. Beyond Tibet, and beyond a little bit of Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh, the rest of the Himalaya is largely absent in New York. Large chunks of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Darjeeling, Sikkim, and the Northeastern states. New York does not know them. Perhaps it is bette that way?

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