Tuesday, January 1, 2013

To New & Auspicious Beginnings - Happy New Year

My piece for K2, KUENSEL Magazine,  Last Page, 29th December, 2012.

I like chatting with cab drivers while I’m commuting around town. They have the most interesting stories to share. This particular cabbie told me that he had heard about a global blackout starting December 21st that would last for three days. We were just 2 days away from “doomsday”!

It surprised me how a prediction from the Mayan civilization from South America was now the topic of conversation, literally half a world away, in a cab in Thimphu. I proceeded to tell my cabbie about the Mayan Long Count calendar and how it ends abruptly, according to modern calculations, on December 21st, 2012. People are speculating the end of the world, I informed him; the look on his face was priceless.

Then I told him no such thing would happen! The end of the Mayan Long Count calendar only means the calendar will now go back right to the beginning, just as January 1st comes a day after December 31st in the Gregorian calendar. He nodded back in comprehension, and smiled a sigh of relief.

Just to humour him I asked him what he’d do the following day, December 20th, if the world really was ending on December 21st. He said, with a huge smile, that he’d spend the day with family and friends celebrating close bonds and toasting to life.

In my case, I’d be contemplating on something else entirely; December 21st would be the start of a new phase in my life – that of a Civil Servant. I graduated from Medical College this year and sat for the RCSC exams and qualified. The RCSC had called us for placement selection on December 21st, for our appointment on New Year’s Day, 2013. Thus, the upcoming New Year has special significance for me.

The coming of a New Year is a time of reflection on the 12 months past – the triumphs and tribulations; good deeds done as well as mistakes made; the adulation as well as criticism. It is a time to be grateful about a good year gone and to invigorate ourselves with hope and promise for a better year ahead.

This past year has been rather eventful for me – I graduated from Medical College; left the city I called home for more than half a decade; returned home and reconnected with family and friends; met the love of my life and got engaged.

The few days in between the end of one year and the beginning of the next offers us a chance to contemplate on the things we value in life and those that define us – family and friends, relationships, near and dear ones, career, dreams, goals, memories, future plans etc. 

It’s amazing how a change in date and the dawn of a new day brings forth the promise of a whole new beginning. We close one chapter of our lives and stand on the threshold of another new one.

Only this time around, I’m standing on the threshold of not only a brand New Year, but also a brand new phase in my life – I’m starting out on my career, I’m settling down with my better half, I’m building my own home, and I’m embarking on a lifetime of devoted service to the Tsa-Wa-Sum.

My cabbie plans to spend New Year picnicking with his family and friends, all of them toasting to life. Me, I’ll be with my fiancĂ©, my parents, family and friends, toasting to new and auspicious beginnings. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Time Flows Still

There are one hundred and eleven wooden planks on the main span of the wooden cantilever bridge at Nemey Zampa, as one approaches the Paro Rinpung Dzong. As a kid, I counted it almost every day on the way to and back from school which was within sight of the bridge, some fifteen years back.

Much water has flowed under this bridge since and when I counted that day, I smiled when I got off the final plank with the same number, one hundred and eleven.

The Nemey Zampa wooden cantilever bridge

The dawn was jostling for space with the night sky and the air had the remnants of the winter chill. My breath came out as vapour as I made my way up the granite flatstone-paved path to the Dzong; these are the same stones on which Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi once walked on, back in 1958. I have no idea how old this path actually is; the Dzong itself was built in the 17th century.

It was the last day of the Paro Tshechu and I was making my way up the path to the Tshechu grounds to witness the Guru Thongdrol.

Tshechus are festivals held in honour of Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche (the precious teacher). The dates and duration of the Tshechus vary between different places but almost all of them are held on the 10th day of the month according to the Bhutanese lunar calendar.

Monks as well as laymen perform the various dances (Chham) during the Tshechus. The dancers personify the compassionate as well as wrathful deities, heroes, demons and even animals. Deities are invoked by these dances and onlookers are blessed and protected from misfortune. It is also a yearly social gathering for people to come together and rejoice.

My personal favourite is the Dance of Judgement of Death (Raksha Machham), where the Lord of Death (Shinje Chhogyel) pronounces the verdict for a good man and a sinner after they’ve both crossed the Bardo (an in-between period of wandering after death).

Shijne Chhogyel, Lord of Death, who presides over the Judgement of Death

The Guru Thongrol is displayed for a few hours at dawn on the last day of the Paro Tshechu. Thongdrol stands for “liberation at sight” (Thong = to see; Drol = liberation). The Guru Thongdrol of Paro is one of the largest in the world and is almost 350 years old.

I walked up this stone-paved path at the crack of dawn as a child without knowing why or understanding its significance; today, I realize its importance enough to have come all the way from Thimphu in the wee hours of the morning.

Walking with me were the local people of Paro, decked in their finest clothes, most noticeable among them the Goechey (brocade) ghos and tegos. At such festivals ghos and kiras with intricate patterns, some of them passed down as family heirlooms, are worn with pride.

A majority of them were carrying packed lunch with them, a meal that’ll be shared between the family members after witnessing the Thongdrol. This is an age-old tradition where the only change over time has been the way the food is carried; Bangchungs (cane basket containers) have now been replaced by plastic hot-cases. Bangchungs are now sold as “decorative pieces” to visiting tourists.

As I approached the Tshechu grounds I noticed that the temporary stalls that used to line both sides of the grounds before were conspicuous by their absence. The stalls used to sell food and drinks, hosted games for prizes, and sold handicrafts to tourists.

The stalls used to give the Tshechu a fair-like atmosphere and used to be a way for the local people to indulge in fun and frolic, a break from the normally serious routines on their farms. To maintain hygiene at the Tshechu grounds the stalls are now located near the Paro town.

Save for the stalls not much had changed from fifteen years back. The Lhakhangs that host the Tshechu and Thongdrol, the way the ceremonies are conducted, even the number of people in the crowd, seemed the same as before. And of course, the Guru Thongdrol itself stands as a living testament to the timelessness of such traditions and customs of our country.

The Guru Thongdrol

 I moved silently with the crowd towards the Guru Thongrol and sought blessings. As I walked away from it to look at it from afar, I was just as mesmerized by the majesty of the Thongdrol just like I had been as a small child. I silently looked on as the first rays of the sun came streaming through the trees and the Thondrol was rolled up for the year.

When I approached the bridge on my way down I was ushered by policemen to take the exit path which led to a make-shift bridge over the river, solely for people returning from the Tshechu. I was disappointed by the fact that I could not count, once more, the unchanging number of planks on the wooden cantilever bridge.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Our Natural Responsibility

Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy organized a photography and essay competition as part of the Democracy Day (September 15th) celebrations.

The topic was "Natural Responsibility", a concept His Majesty Druk Gyalpo Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk shared with the nation in his National Day address in 2010.

"In times of such peace and prosperity, as good Bhutanese, we must reflect on our responsibilities in further strengthening our nation. We all know that we shoulder responsibilities based on our professions whether they be in the civil service, business or even as parents and teachers. We know we must excel in these duties in order to succeed as individuals and as a nation.

However, there is a higher responsibility – not written in any legal document but instead enshrined in humanity and history – a natural responsibility and duty that we all must shoulder equally, irrespective of who we are. Of paramount importance to the strength of a nation, is the ability of her people to live as one united family – a community in which interaction is marked by trust, understanding and cooperation."

My entry was the first prize-winning essay in the "Out of School" age category. This is my entry:

"Human beings have the remarkable ability to organize themselves into groups and to work collectively. This enabled early humans to build families, tribes, clans, and ultimately form countries and nation-states and become subjects and citizens of such countries.

The concept of a “nation-state” was first propounded by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This has been the single-most important development in human history which gave rise to the democratic institutions of today.

Bhutan became a nation-state after the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in the 17th century; he took various measures to unify the various valleys and consolidate power. He strived to give Bhutan a unique identity through customs and traditions which are alive and vibrant even to this day.

It was under Zhabdrung that the concept of “Chhoe-Syid”, the dual system of government, came into being. This was a crude form of democracy where only a select group of powerful people elected the rulers – the Desis, Penlops and Dzongpoens. The Bhutanese people, however, continued to be subjects under these rulers with very little aspirations of their individual rights.

The golden reign of the monarchy followed in 1907, thus beginning a period of peace, prosperity and development unprecedented in Bhutan’s entire history. Under the benevolent reign of our hereditary monarchs, the people, however, continued to remain faithful subjects.

All that changed in 2008, and it was a coming of age of sorts for the Bhutanese people, when parliamentary elections took place. Although the Constitution recognized the Druk Gyalpo as Head of State, most of the King’s powers were transferred to the Parliament and Cabinet of Ministers who are elected by the people.

While this was the overarching feature of the historic move, what was largely overlooked by the populace was that the Bhutanese people had now become “citizens” of Bhutan; they were no longer mere “subjects” under a ruler.

It was His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s wisdom and far-sightedness that he felt that the Bhutanese people were now mature enough to shoulder power and responsibilities on their own.

As all institutions from the Judiciary to the Constitutional Bodies to the Bureaucracy continue to redefine their roles and mandates under the new form of Government, the realization of the Bhutanese people of their new roles as citizens is slowly taking place.

The Bhutanese people have, in recent years, referred to the Constitution under Article 7 which guarantees Fundamental Rights to all Bhutanese citizens, and asserted their rights like never before. But what many Bhutanese still don’t realize is that the next article of the Constitution, Article 8, spells out certain Fundamental Responsibilities as well, to be fulfilled by all Bhutanese citizens.

With the advent of democracy we, Bhutanese, have become good at claiming our rights but we are not always so ready to recognize our responsibilities. A proper understanding of Rights and Responsibilities gives rise to a healthy “civil society” in a nation-state. Responsible and active citizens who value the system of government and work towards a shared vision thus give birth to a healthy civil life.

The key to the success of democracy in our country is an informed and engaged citizenry. We not only have a right to be informed but also a responsibility to be informed; informed about the issues on which we are asked to make decisions, for example, during elections etc.

A good citizenship means citizens have responsible values, behaviour, and attitudes. It requires knowledge of society’s major social, political and legal institutions, and citizens have to have the capacity and temperament to participate in these institutions, along with the awareness of rights and responsibilities that citizenship offers. Citizens need to participate in the civil life of the community either through formal participation, which is to stand in elections or vote in one, or through individual and collective efforts to build stronger communities.

This is part of the “natural responsibility” that His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk talked about in his National Day Address in 2010.

While it is important that everyone earns a meaningful livelihood and excels at one’s trade, a much higher responsibility must be shouldered by Bhutanese citizens to ensure that our country’s security and sovereignty as well as economic, cultural and environmental resources are firmly secured. This added responsibility is our higher calling, in fact, citizenship is every person's highest calling.

His Majesty had once said that our development philosophy of Gross National Happiness, to him, meant “Development with Values.” Similarly, for Bhutanese citizens to answer to a higher calling and shoulder responsibilities beyond one’s family and one’s job, values such as being mindful of one’s neighbours, community, society, and country as a whole, are of the essence.

This is where Fundamental Responsibilities of citizens serve an important purpose. A democratic society cannot function without guaranteeing fundamental rights of its citizens and its citizens cannot function democratically without discharging their fundamental duties in society. Citizens earn their rights from their duties discharged well. The duty of one person is the right of another person; if everyone fulfilled their respective duties, everyone’s rights would be automatically safeguarded. Consciousness of these responsibilities is as crucial as defending our inalienable rights.

His Majesty has often emphasized that as a small nation the most important resource of our country is its people. He has repeatedly expressed his faith and confidence in the Bhutanese people.

His Majesty’s words of wisdom come alive during those times when the entire nation comes together in moments of celebration or tragedy, and we’ve witnessed many such moments in the last few years.

The whole nation united as one to celebrate the glorious enthronement of His Majesty as the Fifth Druk Gyalpo, to celebrate 100 years of the Wangchuk dynasty, and the Royal Wedding of His Majesty to Gyaltsuen Jestun Pema.

On the other hand, tragedies such as earthquakes, floods, and fires brought together all Bhutanese people in solidarity. The nation wept as one as we were afflicted with one tragedy after another. Citizens contributed in cash and kind to assist relief efforts.

It is this sense of oneness that the Bhutanese people have to hold on to in all times to come if we are to thrive as a country. Furthermore, to let democracy flourish Bhutanese citizens have to exhibit good civic behaviour. It is akin to a relationship a couple shares; citizenship is basically the relationship that citizens share with the country. This relationship has to be based on mutual trust and understanding, as well as fulfilling responsibilities from either side, and safeguarding rights of the other.

The relationship between citizens and the country, and the feeling of oneness shared by the people, will strengthen with values such as kindness, care and compassion for one’s country and people; living with honesty, integrity, and respect for self and others; by being understanding and tolerant of one’s government and fellow citizens; striving for excellence and being mindful of one’s responsibilities.

Armed with such a moral compass we, Bhutanese citizens, have to boldly step into modern and exciting, albeit uncertain times. Armed with values bestowed upon us through the wisdom of our forefathers we have to face modern challenges. Armed with a firm awareness and execution of our fundamental duties we have to uphold our rights.

Speaking for myself, I clearly remember the first time I became aware of my rights and responsibilities as a Bhutanese citizen. While in school the values of “Tha-Damtshi” and “Ley-Jumdrey”, service to the “Tsa-Wa-Sum”, tenets of our etiquette code of conduct, “Driglam Namzha” etc. are ingrained in every Bhutanese child and I received my fair share of sound grounding in those values.

But it was only in high school while learning Bhutan Civics that I learnt for the first time about citizen’s rights and responsibilities. My teacher was comprehensive about the topic and stressed, with good reason, on the importance of responsibilities over rights.

It was unfortunate, though, that when all the exciting changes were taking place in the country with the enthronement of the Fifth Druk Gyalpo, signing of the Constitution and election of the First Parliament, I was away from the country for my college studies. I, therefore, never had a chance to vote in the first ever parliamentary elections of our country.

I had to watch from the sidelines at all the changes that were taking place in our country. I was a silent spectator but one with a keen interest with what all was happening. The only way of keeping myself abreast about changes back home was to read about it in the various online newspaper articles. I made sure to make time to read the news everyday despite of the burden of college studies and followed every story very closely.

It was only early this year that I got back from college, and as soon as I did, I tried to bring myself up to speed about what had been happening here at home. One of the first things I did was to reread our Constitution; the first time I had read it was when it was just a Draft Constitution while it was being taken around the country for public consultations by Their Majesties the Kings.

Armed with basic knowhow about the Supreme Law of our country, I then started taking part in forums conducted by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD) where the concepts of “Culture of Democracy”, “Civil Society”, “Open Society”, “Role of Media in a Democracy”, “Media Literacy” etc. were deliberated by an audience consisting of civil servants, parliamentarians, civil society organizations, private entrepreneurs, teachers, and students.

These concepts are inherently deep and philosophical but on an individual basis, very simple and personal. For me, it was a moment of reflection of my own duties as a citizen and in what ways I could shoulder this “natural responsibility”.

Attending these forums and listening to the views of my fellow citizens, most of them experts in these topics, and contributing whatever little I had understood on my own, was the first step I took in fulfilling my responsibility to be informed.

Soon after I got back home our nation plunged into the “Rupee Crunch”. Soon after that came reports of scams that rulers in the current government were involved in. Then came reports of new political parties and about the next parliamentary elections in 2013.

Much was written about it in the newspapers and one needed some form of censor to sift through the jargon and get an idea about what was actually happening; one had to be media-literate to be able to read between the lines and understand the fine undertones. In the face of a barrage of confusing news reports I read extensively to get the whole picture in each case and tried to develop a balanced view in each story.

Armed with some awareness I got myself into discussions with friends, colleagues, elders, civil servants, aspiring politicians, about all these issues, and I felt that such an engagement on my part is what a vibrant democracy encourages and so dearly needs – for its citizens to come together and discuss ideas and opinions, to share experiences and aspirations, and to express themselves openly.

One time I was invited by BCMD to participate in a Civic Engagement Workshop for trainee teachers. I was asked to talk to the participants about my work as a Youth Volunteer for the Youth Development Fund when I was in high school.

I seized the opportunity to impart some of my sentiments about active citizenship to the trainee teachers. I feel teachers are an influential group of people, who touch the lives of so many children and make a huge difference. Apart from urging the trainee teachers to be mindful about concepts such as active citizenship, media literacy, rights and responsibilities, I further implored them to discuss such concepts with their students as well. While we have democracy now, our citizens need education in citizenship and its tenets from a very young age.

The next opportunity that came my way was when I was attending the National Graduate Orientation Program, 2012. All Ministries and relevant agencies of the government (ACC, RAA, RCSC etc.), private (BCCI) and corporate (DHI) sector came and oriented the graduates on policy matters. Graduates had a chance ask questions regarding government policies and I grabbed the chance, many times over, to ask some of my own doubts as well.

In between the Orientation Program and RCSC Exams, I was busy organizing a Career Guidance Program for Class 12 students of Motithang Higher Secondary School, in my capacity as an Alumnus of the school. While providing them essential information about various courses that are on offer in college, to what all career opportunities these courses can offer later, I asked the students to be mindful of their responsibilities to themselves, their families, and to the country, and to make themselves capable of shouldering such responsibilities. I also urged them to get their voter identity cards processed and to vote in the upcoming Parliamentary elections in 2013.

It has been a wonderful break after college, a kind of sabbatical, before I start working. With the activities I got myself involved in over the last few months, I believe I utilized this time fruitfully in educating myself about my role as a Bhutanese citizen, a role that goes further than my family and career.

I will soon be working for the government in providing medical services to the people. It is a given that I will not be able to participate so actively in forums and discussion as I have tried to in these past few months but I am sure that my conscience will not allow me to be a silent spectator any more.

One of the first things I will be doing is getting myself registered as a voter in the upcoming parliamentary elections and casting my vote to the candidates I feel are the most capable of running our government.

I want to be an active participant in civil society and work with my fellow countrymen in addressing some of the issues we’re currently faced with. While we may feel limited in our capacity to bring about any real positive change, a small part played by each individual will go a long way than a huge effort made by our government. And change need not be on grandiose levels; I plan on starting small and then building up momentum from there.

Equipped with the wisdom of Buddhist philosophy and values passed down by my parents and elders, I would like to make small changes wherever I can, and make a difference in as many lives as I can. Even the simple act of smiling at a stranger, opening a door for someone, or offering donations to the needy, will make a difference. I would not like to wait for my leaders to come and act as saviours for the problems that we live with everyday.

I have faith in the values that I carry with me at all times and an unshakeable belief that these values will guide me in shouldering my natural responsibilities, my duties as a citizen. As I mature and start my own family, I would like to raise my children to be well-rounded individuals who respect age-old values and use them to recognize their natural responsibilities, not only in principle, but more so by practice.

Citizens have to be involved in the affairs of the state, be informed about issues, be cognizant of social and citizenship duties, and be willing to answer beyond the call of duty.

We cannot afford to be selfish and only care about our own selves, as Aristotle famously expressed: “To take no part in the running of the community's affairs is to be either a beast or a god!” We have to affirm Their Majesties faith in the Bhutanese people – that we are mature and confident enough to shoulder the natural responsibility of serving our country with all that we have."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Process of Getting Oriented

The piece I contributed to BHUTAN YOUTH newspaper for its 25th August, 2012, issue.

The 2,263 graduates who had gathered at the Nazhoen Pelri multipurpose hall on the morning of 9th August, 2012, for the briefing session on the National Graduate Orientation Program, 2012, themed “Inspiring Young Leaders of Happiness”, had no idea how the day was going to go.

A majority had received an SMS from the Ministry of Labour & Human Resources as to which house they had been placed in; house names this time were from the names of Guru Rinpoche’s eight manifestations and his heavenly palaces.

As graduates filed into the hall and sought their houses and respective places to sit, some discovered that they were being seated in the Taekwondo Hall in the Swimming Pool Complex and promptly left.

What everyone thought was an hour-long briefing at the most was to be a day-long event.

While graduates were still adjusting to the heat wave inside the hall, the delegation from Election Commission of Bhutan was ushered in led by the Chief Election Commissioner himself. The team, after giving a presentation about their agency, informed the gathering that a voting exercise for the NGOP Councillers would be conducted by them on Electronic Voting Machines.

Nominations were called for the post of House and Chief Councillers and the nominees pleaded for votes.

Then began the exercise of voting; for some it was their first time voting on an EVM, having missed voting in the last election since they were away in college. A worthwhile exercise no matter how long and tedious it was; but then so is the process of every “real” election.

By afternoon the graduates had had a taste of things to come in the coming week – the hall, seating arrangement, the heat, the snacks, the lunch, the sessions in the hall etc.

From the inaugural session the following Monday with Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba and Lyonpo Dorji Wangdi in the upper and lower halls respectively, till the audience with His Majesty the King and awarding of certificates, graduates sat in their respective places, next to the same people all week long, and stood in the same line in the same tent for snacks and lunch.

Everyone made new friends and rediscovered old ones; some even came face-to-face with those who were much junior to them in college, instantly acquiring the tags of “Acho/Azhim/Aue” from them.

All Ministries and relevant agencies of the government (ACC, RAA, RCSC etc.) came and oriented the graduates on policy matters. Each session was one-and-half hours long, with four such sessions in a day. The best past of each session was when the speakers gave priceless advice regarding life after college.

Even the corporate and private sector were represented by DHI and BCCI respectively. A particularly lively session took place with young entrepreneurs who had dared to setup innovative businesses.

Graduates had a chance to clear their doubts regarding government policies and some of them got the speakers thinking hard about their responses.

There were some who felt that a session with parliamentarians, both from the upper and lower houses, including the Opposition, should have been organized.

Except for a few glitches, organizational and technical, everything took place with clockwork precision. From uncooked rice to substandard vegetarian curries, the heat inside the hall to absence of fans, and graduates being herded around like little children, these were some of the inconveniences the graduates were all too willing to forgive the organizers about.

The grand finale was the audience with His Majesty the King himself. No where in the world does the head of state of a country come personally to welcome college graduates and tell them he has great hope and expectations from them, and tell them he’s proud of them.

The 2,263 graduates who had registered for the NGOP, 2012, had no idea how the one-week orientation program was going to go, but they must now look back with fond memories, for they were the highlight of the entire country for that one week,  never mind the absence of fans to keep them cool during the entire time.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Dreaming Wide Awake

He’s dressed in a t-shirt and knee-length shorts, a biker helmet on his head, and a bag slung over his right shoulder. It is past lunchtime and he tells me he just cycled to work from home; it is Pedestrian Tuesday. He can come and go as he likes because he doesn’t have any bosses to answer to, he is his own master.

Meet Choeying Jatsho, a 25 year old Electronics and Communications Engineer-turned-Music Producer.

He leads me to the basement of the building where his studio is located in. As we descend the steps the air becomes cooler and the smell of freshly-sawn timber rises into my nostrils. We settle down into comfortable chairs in the producing room while being looked on by computer monitors sitting all around the room.

We’re in M-Studio, a multimedia studio owned by Choeying’s Uncle, a graphics designer; the recording studio was conceptualised by Choeying and bankrolled by his Uncle. Choeying produces music while his Uncle and other employees take care of the graphics and design arm of the studio.

M-Studio broke out onto the Bhutanese contemporary music scene last November with their own genre of music, B-Pop. Choeying explains that it stands for ‘Bhutanese popular music’. They have taken it upon themselves to promote it and make it heard throughout the country as well as the world.

It is Choeying’s love and passion for music that has led to this unique evolution of Bhutanese music.

With no formal training in music and having largely taught himself how to play the innumerable instruments he plays deftly, Choeying set out to chase his dream based on the keen sense of music he developed as he was growing up.

“Music was always in my family; my Dad and his sisters used to play the guitar, my mom and my grandparents used to sing. At family functions we always had a great deal of singing and dancing. Even before I was aware of who I was, music was already conditioned in me,” he says.

He also credits one of his Uncles who was very passionate about music. “He used to play a number of instruments ranging from traditional to modern and had them lying around at his house. I taught myself how to play all these instruments,” he shares.

He maintains that he still does not know the technicalities of notes and chords; he says he goes by the feel of the sounds, not by the book.

The same Uncle also introduced him to Fruityloops, a music creation software. It was then that he moved from singing and playing instruments to laying tracks and producing musical pieces.

He was part of the Cultural Troupe in high school and that helped keep up his budding interest in music. A brilliant student, he held on to his passion by finely balancing his studies and his musical pursuits.

He even had a chance to sing and make music for a Dzongkha Rigsar album while still in high school. He was paid a handsome sum for it, but more than that, he jumped at the chance to get exposed to recording and producing music. Even after an album under his belt he still had not considered music serious enough to be pursued as a full-time profession.

“Back then it was all about bringing good marks in school, going to a good college, finishing on time, coming back home to appear for the RCSC exams and landing a government job; even that was something conditioned in me, and I guess all students, right from school days,” he confides.

Bring good marks and go to a good college he did, to study Electronics and Communications Engineering in India. He continued to pursue his music interests while in college; he formed a band and played at college functions.

It was only in his 3rd year of college that he started becoming serious about his musical interests. He started reading books and watching movies about artistes who followed their dreams, struggled, and made a career in music. He was inspired by these stories and started believing that music as a career was possible for him too, although he was a little disappointed about the situation in Bhutan.

“We didn’t have artistes who made music their full-time careers, neither did the public think it was a viable profession to be in; the majority of people consider music as an interest which is to be pursued as a hobby in our spare time,” he says.

When he came home after finishing college he discussed with his parents, for the first time, his intention of pursuing a musical career.

Having played music all his life Choeying now thought he needed to do something big. He was no longer content with merely singing and playing instruments but became more and more interested in the process of producing a song.

It was a casual conversation with his Uncle that the idea of a recording studio was born. His Uncle shared with him his intention to open a multimedia studio and Choeying pitched the idea of a music recording studio as one of the arms of his new multimedia house.

But the setting-up of the studio was going to take time and patience, so Choeying appeared for the RCSC exam, like he was expected to and passed, but he did not like the jobs on offer.

Then a job opening came up at Tashi Cell for a marketing manager with an ECE background. The job required him to be a bridge between the commercial aspect of the business and the technical aspect, with a certain amount of creativity involved as well.

He says, “The job was good – there were so many interesting things to learn and my work was appreciated. I was paid well and there was a good career prospect ahead. While I worked there I gave it my 100%. But there used to be days when the work was light that I’d sit and wonder if this was what I wanted to do forever; there was some dissatisfaction deep down.”

While he worked at his day-job, he was working on the side on setting up of his studio. He had already given his employers the condition that he’d be with them for a maximum of 2 years; he left one and half years later when the studio was completed.

He and his Uncle set out to build the recording studio with neither of them having any prior knowhow about how to setup one. Choeying chuckles as he points out that his knowledge of sound and acoustics was the only thing he could rely on.

He went online, read a lot of articles and watched a lot of Youtube videos on how a studio is set up. They chose not to consult any technicians or go visit other studios because, he says, “That way we’d have made something similar to the others or only slightly better; we wanted to build something, if not at par, then atleast half as good as the studios that world-class musicians record in.”

He rates his studio a modest 7/10; it has good acoustics, noise isolation and is spacious. Most of the materials that were used while building the studio were best possible alternatives of what is being used in good studios because the original materials were difficult to procure.

“We had to make do with what was available to us locally because waiting for the original materials would have taken a lot of time and the delay would’ve waned our enthusiasm; we simply couldn’t afford to let that happen,” he says, “In future we’d like to replace these alternatives with the original ones.”

Seven months since their launch, Choeying shares that the studio hasn’t really been making money, but they haven’t been idle either.

He says, “In the beginning it is important for us to establish ourselves as a place that fosters creativity. People have to identify M-Studio with good quality work, something that is new and different.”

The “new and different” he’s talking about is B-Pop, a new style of Bhutanese music, not restricted to any language or genre; as long as Bhutanese have worked on it, it is B-Pop. Choeying came up with this concept and proudly stakes a claim to it.

When asked how B-Pop is different from the already popular Rigsar brand of Bhutanese music, Choeying says, “Rigsar is just traditional Bhutanese music packaged in a new melody; there is a very limited range. B-Pop spans all genres from Pop to Reggae to Soul etc.”

He tells me in Rigsar there is a certain level of predictability which brings a sense of sameness to the tune and melody whereas in B-Pop they try for something unique and individualised. “You can just feel the difference as soon as you listen to it,” he says, “Rigsar also doesn’t have mood variation within the same song; the songs just have verses and no definite chorus. While we don’t limit B-Pop to any set formula, we try and incorporate verses, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge etc.” He says there is also a lot of Bollywood influence on Rigsar songs which he has consciously tried to keep out from B-Pop.

B-Pop has also received its fair share of criticism from people saying it is not Bhutanese music or that the Dzongkha accent of the singers isn’t Bhutanese enough.

Choeying tells me this is the very essence of B-Pop – that it is the singers’ own style, something natural and felt from the heart, and highly individual. He explains that this is not the case with our traditional Bhutanese music where there are set rules about the style, the flow of melody, and there is not much deviation from that to stamp one’s own individual style.

“I have respect for traditional Bhutanese music and I feel it should be preserved, but at the same time, it should be allowed to evolve keeping with the times. If Bhutanese music doesn’t evolve it will not be palatable to the younger generations and people will not have respect for it,” he says, “Even the music we’re producing in our studio, in a few years, will evolve into something different, and we’re open to that possibility.”

Choeying firmly believes what they’re doing is unique, another step in the evolution of Bhutanese music.

Choeying spread the word through Facebook and uploaded all B-Pop songs on Soundcloud.com for free download. Since their artistes are all young people he felt people from the same age group would be their primary target. He did not intend to earn any revenue off the songs.

“We wanted to develop a taste of B-Pop among the young people so that they identify our studio with that sound and keep coming for more,” he tells me with confidence, “We are promoting something entirely new, something that has never been heard of before, so we had to start small and focus on brand recognition first.”

He’s already seeing signs of a growing popularity of B-Pop among the youth; recently a boys’ dance troupe danced to one of the popular B-Pop numbers on a dance competition show, broadcasted live by the national television channel, BBS. Choeying had nothing to do with how and why the boys chose one of his songs but he says with a smile that he doesn’t mind the publicity.

Choeying works mainly with young people; he lets them write their own songs and create their own melody. Before they set out to work he sits with them and talks extensively so that he can understand the artistes and where they come from; that way he can know how to offer suggestions to help them improve on their writing, or their singing.

“I encourage them to feel what they’ve written, so that it can be expressed in their songs; if they feel it, the listeners can feel it too,” he says.

He offers suggestions as to how one can better project one’s voice and how to add expressions, in a way, connect to the song. He says these are some intangibles which are really important to set a song apart.

Choeying Jatsho (second from right) with some of his artistes

The young artistes come to the studio out of their own interest; they don’t have any contract signed with the studio. They come in with their lyrics and melodies, and sit and discuss how to proceed with producing the song. Choeying provides them with a lot of creative freedom, with a firm hand of guidance, so that their creativity is not restrained by any sort of pressures. “Creating music is something that has to be done in a relaxed state,” he says.

They try to work in a pressure-free environment where there is no worry about deadlines, the earnings, and the target audience. “We have no restrictions as far as creativity is concerned,” he remarks.

He tells me he works mostly with the youth because they are a curious lot; they like to experiment and think outside the box. “Their mindset is malleable and they accept new things much more readily than the older generation which has a particular taste ingrained in them,” he says.

One other reason why the studio wanted to work with the youth is that in future M-Studio wants to hone their talents, nurture their skills and then launch and promote them as full-time artistes.

“Their families still think of their passion for music as a hobby which is to be pursued at the side; the studio wants to step in and give them a chance to develop this passion into a full-time career,” Choeying says, “We will not make high and mighty promises and show false hope; we will explain to them and their families the hard work and struggle that goes with it and the kinds of risks involved; at the same time we’ll assure them that they will give the best from our side.”

Choeying wants to create a pool of talent who call M-Studio their home; they’d like to produce songs, make CDs, and distribute their music and go on tours around Bhutan, maybe even out of the country. He tells me they have the capacity to go commercial; they’re just biding their time while they promote their studio and their artistes.

“I would like to see kids in future wanting to be B-Pop artistes and dreaming about a career in music,” he says with a smile.

The current situation in Bhutan is that almost all the artistes still have a day job which pays their bills and they pursue their interests on the side, maybe for a little extra income. This discourages new artistes and their families to take up music as a full-time profession.

But the trend is changing; like Choeying, there are youngsters now who’re following their dreams and doing not just what they’re expected to do, which for a majority of them is to land a government job, but are also making full-time careers out of what they’re passionate about.

Choeying is of the view that this is something that should be encouraged. Yet, he says, the number of people who dare to follow their dreams is rather measly.

It has something to do with the kind of upbringing we all have had while growing up; we were expected to aim for secure jobs and be content in them rather than take risks with our careers by chasing our dreams. It, thus, is not an enabling environment for innovators and those who dare to tread off the beaten track. But the ones who do dare and put in a commensurate amount of hard work and dedication, like Choeying, go on and sustain themselves just fine, maybe even earn a whole lot more.

Choeying shares, “Where there is good work done, money will automatically follow. In Bhutan, where the arts are concerned, it is seen as a risky career path because, while we are people who appreciate music and paintings, we’re not really in the habit of paying to appreciate them.”

“We take all the hard work that goes into it for granted and just linger our attention on the finished product for maybe a short while. For a quality product, actually there should not be any hesitation to pay money. For example, if we have a free, open-air concert in the Clock Tower Square thousands will gather and enjoy the performance; if we were to charge for the same, the crowd would be considerably thinner,” he says.

Compared to his previous job he says his current line of work has a lot of struggle involved, a lot of risks, not much money, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in what he does.

The smile on the artistes’ faces when they listen to the completed song is priceless, he says; he happiness it brings them, their families, and their friends, is what keeps him going.

M-Studio has a Facebook page and with 5-6 followers in the first 1-2 months, they now have more than 670. Choeying says it has been interesting to see the statistics of who all have been visiting their page and how many keep coming back for more; all this has been very encouraging.

“That is what drives me and keeps my mind fresh. I did not quit my earlier job because I didn’t like it or I was frustrated there; I started that job to earn some money while I setup M-studio,” he confides, “I’m doing something I love and I feel totally in control; it’s up to me to make it or break it.”

As a business venture they’re running at a loss, month after month. But since Choeying’s Uncle values creativity more than the money it brings in, he’s able to keep doing what he loves. He tells me his backup plan was to keep working at his earlier job and save enough to setup his own studio.

The fact that his Uncle also has a creative mind, had gone against convention and followed his passion encouraged him a lot. He understood Choeying and his passion for music and whole-heartedly supported him, morally and financially.

Choeying’s parents are happy and he says he’s surviving with what he saved from his earlier job. He says he hasn’t made any money from the studio; whatever the studio charges has been used to buy instruments and the like, putting it back into the business. He says doesn’t have any regrets and is in fact really proud of what he’s achieved so far.

He beams as he says, “Everything worked out for me just great. A series of fortunate events and an enabling environment helped me chase my dream – I had an early exposure to music; my parents encouraged me and supported my decisions, and they are financially independent; my Uncle supported my creative interests and financed the project so that I could realize my passion; the help of social networking sites and the internet as a whole which has helped spread the word – I have no pressures from anywhere that would deter me from doing what I love.”

A week after I had spoken to him M-Studio launched its Youtube channel on June 21st, 2012, coinciding with World Music Day. As the first video played on, it reminded me of something Choeying had said earlier, “I’m not content with doing just one thing; I have to keep all my options open and do new things to keep up the passion.”

Picture & Video courtesy: Deepika Adhikari

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bring out the Mob!

If you frequent Youtube as much as I do, you must’ve come across those videos where, in a crowded place music suddenly starts playing on some loudspeakers or public announcement systems, and then one or two (seemingly) random people from the busy crowd break out into a (seemingly) spontaneous dance, often synchronized or complimenting with each other. Well, you’ve just come across a video of a Flash Mob - it's sudden, spontaneous, fun and downright awesome.

I first saw a Flash Mob video maybe 2 years ago, I can’t remember where or how it was, but I remember breaking into a wide grin, laughing, feeling happy, and sharing that happy feeling with my friends by making them watch the video. I thought it was just one of those crazy antics on the Internet but the word “Flash Mob” remained in the back of my mind until slowly such videos started becoming more and more common online.

I did a little research on Flash Mobs and found a nice little article in Wikipedia which describes it as:
"a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual and sometimes seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, artistic expression." 

The article gives two more definitions, one from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and the other from the Websters New Millennium Dictionary of English, and all of the three definitions contain words like "pointless" and "bizarre", not because the blokes who write those things don't see the fun behind Flash Mobs, but because the definition also includes acts like a group of people suddenly assembling at one place and clapping for 5 minutes and suddenly dispersing. I would also think of such a thing as bizarre, but smile at it none the less. 

Well, the Wikipedia article also goes on to say what cannot be called a Flash Mob, namely:"events and performances organized for the purposes of politics (such as protests), commercial advertisementpublicity stunts that involve public relation firms, or paid professionals."

So now you know what is a Flash Mob and what isn't. To further break it down into a number of smaller steps:

All of them have almost the same premises – a crowded place where people are just going about their own business, not worried about what is going on around them except for their own purpose in mind, too busy to “stand and stare”, as one of my favourite poems, “Leisure” by William Henry Davies, says it.

Then out of no where a song starts playing through a loudspeaker or often the public announcement system of the location. People instinctively look up and try to locate the source of the sound, almost surprised by it. The wheels are thus set in motion!

While the music plays, one or more people from the crowd – oh they seem so random at first – start to dance to the song, synchronizing their moves with each other. The crowd still keeps on moving. But some slow down, if not entirely stop, to take a look at what in the hell is going on. Successful thus far!

As the crowd slows down its pace and takes notice (and takes a picture, with flash, at the same time), more (seemingly) random people join in from the crowd and start dancing like it’s nobody’s business. The crowd smiles, some cheer, some enthusiasts join in right then and there. We’re close!

Now more (seemingly) random people join in and the “act” has gotten everyone (well, almost) stopping to take a look. There is music, dance, cheering, smiles, and a general feeling of well-being among the people involved, those dancing and watching alike. We did it!

The crowd cannot keep on moving at this point, except for those really hard-pressed for time, and it “stands and stares” at the marvel unfolding in front of them. As the crowd dances and cheers, more people join in, either to dance or to cheer, but all of them to have their dose of fun.

And like everything else it comes to an end, and as abruptly as it started, the music stops and the dancing crowd disperses, all in different directions – no hugs, no victory signs, and no claps for themselves – it just moves on and blends with the larger crowd. Onlookers are as bewildered at this abrupt ending as they were at its spontaneous and abrupt start. But everyone walks away with a smile and a balloon of happiness inflating inside them.

The phenomenon has recently taken India by storm, with the country seeing its first Flash Mob in the busy Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai, one of the places where the heinous terrorist attacks of 2008 took place. That the Flash Mob took place on 27th November, a day after the third anniversary of the event, was a symbolic reminder of the tragic incident. While the railway public service announcement system stopped for a full eight minutes, over 200 dancers danced to the tune of the hit Bollywood song, “Rang De Basanti.”

The Flash Mob was organized by Shonan Kothari, an avid Flash Mob fan, who took it upon herself to organize the event and sought all necessary clearances from relevant authorities to carry out the same.

The official video of the event, uploaded on Youtube by Shonan Kothari herself, went viral on social networks and has now received more than 1.8 million views.

The idea was replicated next in the southern city of Chennai, in a busyshopping mall, Express Avenue (awesome mall, huge and well-decked, with an awesome multiplex, Escape Cinema, at the top floor). It was organized by Suhasini Mani Ratnam, actress and wife of movie director Mani Ratnam. It was organized to promote the Chennai International Film Festival and also southern Superstar Rajnikanth’s birthday. Although the event went smoothly, featuring soundtracks from Rajnikanth’s latest movie, Endhiran (Robot), and the recent viral video, “Why This Kolaveri Di?” the fact that the Flash Mob was organized to promote a specific event, and that a huge red banner that is held up at the end of the video to broadcast the same, kind of make it not a Flash Mob. Such a Flash Mob would be termed as a Smart Mob.

The next cities in line were Hyderabad, with a Flash Mob organized at the GVKOne Mall the same evening as the one in Chennai, and Cochin, with a Flash Mob held at the Oberon Mall on 16th December. While the former did not have any specific themes other than to “promote dancing in Hyderabad (the organizer Zumba instructor Jegatha Muralidharan’s own words), the latter carried the theme of “No Hate Mate: Not Keralites, Not Tamilians, But Indians” keeping in mind the recent Mullaperiyar dam row between the State governments and people of the two southern states, and ends with a poignant flute rendering of the Indian National Anthem with the entire crowd singing it in attention.

Some of my favorite Flash Mobs:

1. There's this crazy bunch of people who do some pretty amazing things ranging from Flash Mobs to well, the rest I leave you to figure out for yourself. They're called "Improv Everywhere" and you should check out the videos on their Youtube channel. It is a group started by Charlie Todd and is based in New York City. What they do is take the idea of a Flash Mob to a whole different level. Theirs is a mission to do random acts which make people happy and in the process remind us about the things we used to value. Don't miss their "mp3 experiment", "Say Something Nice" and "The Mute Button". These guys will cheer you up any day you feel a bit down.

2. Oprah's 24th Season Kickoff Show had The Black Eyed Peas singing "I Gotta Feeling" and this lone girl starts some awesome moves up at the front of the crowd. A few people around her follow her steps, then the ones next to them follow suit and before you know it, the whole audience is dancing to the same steps. The look on Oprah's face is priceless. Let's see what will be look on your face once you're done watching this. 

3. School Kids Flash Mobs - you can just Google these four words and you'll be richly rewarded for your efforts. 'Nuff said!

4. Flash Mob Marriage Proposals - what better way to pop the question than in the middle of a dancing sequence, eh?

5. I guess this could be the first one I ever watched. The audience reaction is awesome.

And if, by now, you've become a fan of Flash Mobs yourself, here are some links to compilations of the Best Flash Mobs out there.

1. "Best Flash Mobs Ever" at bizarrebytes.com

2. "Top 7 Flash Mobs of All Time" at socialtimes.com

Earlier I called a Flash Mob a “marvel”. 

Now why would I associate such a nice word to describe it? 

To "marvel" is to be filled with wonder and astonishment. And what makes us do that? I guess doing something happy surely would. And when was the last time you did something on the spur of the moment and felt happy about it? I hope you're not one of those who has to look back all the way to childhood to find such a moment. What is so different from back then and now?

As we go about our daily grind we have lost one of the best things about childhood - the spirit of spontaneity, and the happiness and rush that comes with it. We have become slaves to the monotony of everyday life, bound within the moving hands of our watches and clocks. We have stopped to pause and enjoy the little things in life. 

And when we behold a sight of a random group of people coming together, an act big enough to grab our attention, we slow down if not entirely stop, and “marvel” at it, smile, and cheer, shed a tear and feel happy about it. Some of us maybe more spontaneous than the others and may join the dancers, some will stay back and cheer them, some will simply stop and smile; it would be sad if you were one of those who were too busy to “stop and stare” and had to rush past it, because just as you did, life will have rushed past you.