Benoy K. Behl, whose documentary captures the spirit of Cham, talks about the layers of meaning in the ritualistic dance
The serene and the sacred seamlessly meet in Benoy K. Behl’s documentary, Dance of Liberation of the Lamas, that captures the spiritual experience of the Cham.
The filmmaker and art historian recently gave a talk on the dance form at an online event organised by the India Habitat Centre.
According to Behl, the Cham is one of the very few living examples of the role of dance in ancient India both from the point of view of the practitioner and also the society for which it is performed.
Tracing its origins, the seasoned art historian and filmmaker says, “The Yogachara School of Buddhism was founded in Kashmir in the 4th century by Asanga and Vasubandhu. This developed into the sophisticated Vajrayana form of Buddhism, which incorporated the Cham dance. From Ladakh till Mongolia, the Cham is the deepest form of meditation of the Lamas.”
The purpose of this meditation is for the Lama (priest) to be able to free himself entirely from his own ephemeral personality. “He selects a deity upon whom to meditate until the qualities of the deity grow within him and fill him completely. At that point, he is no longer the Lama ji, but has become the deity,” says Behl.
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Unique cultural tradition
The film captures the social connection between the Lamas and the people. Behl points out that most of the dance traditions have lost their true purpose of spiritual awakening and have become mere stage performances. “Therefore, the Cham is a unique and important cultural tradition, which reminds us of the philosophic purpose of all Indian dance forms.”
Behl was introduced to Cham about 30 years ago and it was after 15 years of research that he shot the documentary for Doordarshan.
To capture the drama of the dance, he began to shoot it sitting very close to the feet of the dancing monks. “In the film, you will notice the robes of the Lamas brushing past my camera’s lens. During one such shoot, a few years ago, the sword of a dancing Lama came down on me, as he probably could not see through his mask. Fortunately, it hit the microphone mounted on top of the camera and I escaped unhurt,” laughs Behl.
Every dance form has a story behind it that captures its essence. Cham is no different. According to Behl, the people of Tibet and those who lived in the Indian part of the Himalayas believed that evil spirits resided in the mountains and in the winds. This fear prevented them from accepting the compassionate message of Buddhism. Guru Padmasambhava studied at the renowned Nalanda University, where he imbibed the knowledge of Tantric philosophy and rituals. “He used Cham to destroy the evil forces. Till today, he is revered in the entire Himalayan region.”
The Lamas celebrate the victory of good over evil with two days of the monastic dance. Cham begins in the morning with the appearance of Lhalung Paldor. In the ninth century, King Langdarma had persecuted Buddhists. The monk, Lhalung Paldor, disguised as a black hat dancer, came close to the king and killed him with an arrow. The event is celebrated in all the monasteries of the trans-Himalayas as the majestic Black Hat Dance.
Cham looks simple but carries deep layers in every twirl of the Lama. In Vajrayana Buddhism, says Behl, evil is not something outside of ourselves. “It is our own ego, our attachment to the illusory world around. It is subdued and transformed through prayers and finally through the experience of the Cham.”
The costumes and masks are an integral part of the dance. “The masks are used to cover the ordinary, day-to-day nature of men and present qualities of divinity in them. So there are masks with peaceful and evil expressions. Finally, both symbolise the emptiness of the ultimate nature of all appearances,” notes Behl.
All sounds in the Cham are sacred mantras. The drum is a reminder of the deep sound at the beginning of creation and at the moment of the Buddha’s enlightenment. “Music is presented as an offering to the divine. It elevates the mind to a contemplative state,” says Behl.
Once a great tradition that was practised in Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur, Tibet, southern China, and Mongolia, today Cham has been kept alive at annual celebrations in parts of Ladakh and Spiti. “In places frequented by tourists, the dance has lost its original character and meaning and has become a form of entertainment,” rues Behl.