Sukyi Nyima’s “Radiant as the Sun”: A Tibetan Folk Opera

Sukyi Nyima's "Radiant as the Sun": A Tibetan Folk OperaPhotos by Joe Boris and Hal JacobsTibetan Folk Opera at Emory University (Atlanta): Under the auspices of a grant from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, Dr. Sara McClintock and her colleagues at Emory University brought twelve Tibetan performers to campus in April 2013 to stage a performance of the traditional Tibetan Ache Lhamo folk opera, Sukyi Nyima (gzugs kyi nyi ma). The opera was directed and choreographed by Emory University’s affiliate artist, internationally renowned Tibetan musician and dancer Tashi D. Sharzur, aka Techung. The performers all received their training at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, India. Traditionally in old Tibet this opera would have been performed over a period of several days and nights, often during the annual Yoghurt Festival in late August. In contrast, the performance at Emory lasted a mere two-and-a-half hours, during which time the audience remained utterly captivated! Although the songs were performed in Tibetan, the actors made liberal use of English for improvised jokes. The production also included an English narrator, performed by Dr. Tara Doyle, to prime the audience at the start of each scene. In this way, the audience was able to follow and appreciate the drama and humor of this traditional Buddhist tale.

Sukyi Nyima's "Radiant as the Sun": A Tibetan Folk OperaPhotos by Joe Boris and Hal Jacobs

The opera tells the story of a beautiful girl magically conceived by a deer when she drinks from a stream containing the spilled seed of a forest sage. The girl’s radiance is evident from the moment of her birth, as is her intimate connection to Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, whose mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, she recites upon being born. The sage names her “Radiant as the Sun” (more literally, “Embodied Sun”) and she grows up to be a beautiful woman. The local king finds her and takes her as a second wife, but his first wife, who is evil, tries to destroy her through defamation and poison. The heroine escapes death but is disheartened by the wickedness of the world and so she retires to the forest to meditate with her mother, the deer, at her side. Years later she emerges disguised as a Lama Mani or wandering storyteller. Not recognizing her, her former evil doers confess their crimes. Eventually she is recognized by her conch teeth, and she agrees to return to the palace. The entire kingdom renounces wrongdoing and takes up the Buddhist path.

Sukyi Nyima's "Radiant as the Sun": A Tibetan Folk OperaPhotos by Joe Boris and Hal Jacobs

Ache Lhamo has a long history in Tibetan culture, tracing its roots back to the theatrical tradition’s founding father, the fourteenth-century polymath, spiritual adept, and iron bridge builder, Thangtong Gyalpo. Among eight traditional operas, Sukyi Nyima is a favorite due to its skillful blending of religious themes and romantic intrigue. In old Tibet this opera was played mainly by the Kyomolungpa troupe, located in Lhasa in Central Tibet. It is appreciated especially for its famous scene in which the heroine innocently displays all her seductive powers in the simple act of drawing water from a stream. The libretto as we have it now dates perhaps only to the late nineteenth century, though the story no doubt has a much older provenance. The preface of the text claims that the story was first translated from Sanskrit in the eighth century by the renowned translator Vairocana, and again in the twelfth century by She’u Lotsawa.

Sukyi Nyima's "Radiant as the Sun": A Tibetan Folk OperaPhotos by Joe Boris and Hal Jacobs

Unfortunately, scholars have been unable to locate these early translations. It is sometimes reported that Sukyi Nyima is an adaptation of Śakuntalā, a well-known Sanskrit drama by the fifth-century Indian poet Kālidāsa. The libretto of Sukyi Nyima that is currently in use, however, bears little similarity to this play. Horkhang Sonam Pelbar, a well-known twentieth-century Tibetan scholar, proposes a connection with a narrative from the Bodhisattvāvadānakalpalatā by the eleventh-century Kashmiri poet Kṣemendra, but this has yet to be conclusively established.

As part of the activities surrounding the production of this folk opera, Emory University invited Dr. Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy of the Université Laval (Québec) to present on the history and current status of the Ache Lhamo tradition in Tibet and Tibetan exile communities. Interested persons should consult her forthcoming book (in press), the most comprehensive study of this tradition to date, Ache lhamo: jeux et enjeux d’une tradition théâtrale tibétaine (Louvain/Bruxelles/Kyoto: Peeters/Mélanges chinois et bouddhiques).

A video recording of the Sukyi Nyima performance at Emory will be posted toward the end of the summer, 2013. For now, to see a short video excerpt, more photos, and links to reviews, please visit this website.