A Buddhist practitioner, internationally reputed singer and philanthropist in one word is simplicity
Litfest: The discussions between the two speakers were hardly complex or philosophical.
Rather, it was a story of a young girl, who, having lived a challenging childhood, ventured into finding a meaningful life for herself and people around her, embracing music as an imperative tool.
It was also music the audience sought, when the floor was opened for questions after the discussions. And that’s what they got.
Those, who showed up at the ongoing Mountain Echoes literary festival at Taj Tashi yesterday afternoon, were treated to a “spiritual” session with a Buddhist nun, a philanthropist from Nepal and an internationally reputed singer of Buddhist hymns and chants, Ani Choying Drolma.
In yellow robes and with shaven head, her personality was punctuated with simplicity and humility, quite contrary to her noble initiatives back home, and the name she has made for herself round the globe for performing mantras and songs on spiritual themes.
How does it work for a nun?
“Although I’m not a very learned person or a great practitioner, whatever little understanding I have of Buddhist teaching is that you have to be skillful according to time, place and people,” Ani Choying, who was visiting Bhutan for the fourth time, said.
She also realised that the most important thing in life was to be kind and thoughtful.
With that “simple, basic principle” in her heart, she said she was doing whatever possible within her capacity to bring transformation of thinking and improving qualify of life.
“In that, what better medium can I use besides music?” she said.
She said music was not something people generally associated with monks and nuns.
“But you go to a monastery and every ritual ceremony is carried out by musical instruments and melodies,” she said.
Before she got enrolled in Nagi goenpa nunnery in Kathmandu at the age of 13, Ani Choying Drolma was taking full charge of the household work. It involved cooking, cleaning, washing, looking after her two younger brothers and more. She had started going to school only at the age of nine.
But the most difficult part at home was that of her dad suffering from a “disease” in which he could not control his anger. That subjected the family to physical abuse.
“But, today, when I look back, I’m equally grateful to my dad as much as to my guru,” she said. “These two men helped me to be who I am today.”
First public performance
It was in 1998 that she received a proposal for a monthlong concert tour in America. By then, her album, launched a year ago by an American record company, had received many good reviews internationally, including from the Rolling Stones.
“My excitement was to see America, without much calculation on how that tour would end,” she said.
When the tour ended, it was a success, no doubt, which led to many invitations from music festivals in America and European countries. It also brought financial respite, which helped her establish organisations to work towards welfare for nuns, women and children back home.
But before that, it was American guitarist Steve Tibbetts, a disciple of Ani’s root teacher, who heard her sing and had later mixed her voice with his music. He also proposed to do an album.
“When I asked my teacher, he said, since I sing all these great mantras, which carry very profound energy and blessings in them, whoever gets the chance to listen, irrespective of whether they believe or not, will benefit,” she said. “With that understanding, I went ahead.”
Not much of a professional?
Having done the routine for more than a decade, Ani Choying Drolma said, although practice made difference, she hardly had vocal training or rehearsed before a performance.
“At times I feel I’m not a professional at all,” the 1971-born nun said, adding she avoided having chilled drinks that affected vocal quality, and also did not take oily stuffs.
But in her singing, ingredients that mattered were the right attitude and right motivation, while rest followed. With true devotion as the foundation, the songs were also pursued with right dedication for wellbeing of sentient beings.
“My English isn’t as good as it sounds,” Ani said, when asked how she got a strong western accent.
“I seem to have a musical ear and I can imitate accents,” she said. “It depends on who I’m talking to. If I’m having a conversation with a British, my English becomes little British.”
In being a woman
“Biologically and emotionally we women are very strong,” she said. “The problem comes if we stop believing in ourselves.”
She said she was a living proof that if one believed in oneself, the rest worked out automatically.
“That’s why we should promote that attitude in women and not just wait for sympathy or someone else to open the door for us,” she said.
Keeping the practice alive
Ani Choying said her Buddhist practice was not something bound by a certain period of time. “In between every free time, when in cars and planes, I close my eyes, do recitations and prayers,” she said, adding there were proper prayers and meditation practices she carried out, especially in the morning.
Singing for freedom, the book
Ani said it was natural for human being to respond in a “violent way”. If someone hits you, you hit back!
“But that seems to be fueling the fire,” she said. “But here, we have my teacher and Buddha’s teachings helping me to tackle these experiences in my life.”
In authoring the book, she said she wrote it with aspirations that everyone understood that it was possible to be positive and productive.
“Best way to reply to anger is with a smile,” she said. “I’m least academically educated person, having hardly finished my fifth grade so, if someone like me can do it, anybody can do it.”
A biography, the book published in 2010, inspires readers to overcome anger, develop good understanding of life to become a strong and powerful personality like Ani is today.
When Indian legendary composer AR Rahman recently asked Ani whether she would sing other kind of songs besides the spiritual ones, she said “style” was not a problem for her.
“I can even sing rock, jazz, blues, or whatever,” she answered Mr Rahman. “But the most important thing is that subject should be good.”
Ani said she doesn’t want to sing any love songs or songs that spread wrong messages to society.
“He asked me why is that, and I said there are enough people, who sing tragic love songs,” she said, radiating a smile.
She said there was a need for spiritual songs to be sung in a modern way.
“Nowadays youth are very attracted to western world and our own culture is taken as something boring,” she said. “I thought style isn’t something I should be stuck with.”
“Being a Buddhist practitioner, ultimate goal is enlightenment,” she said. “I have a long way to go but, in order to achieve that, we believe that we have to have merit.”
That, she said can be done only through good deeds like helping people, sharing good thoughts and offering service to people.
By Kesang Dema