MELODY IN PRISON: NGAWANG CHOEPHEL
20 August 1996
One year ago today in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, Ngawang Choephel bid farewell to his American traveling companion, American photographer Kathryn Culley. He planned to travel to Shigatse to continue work on his project of documenting Tibetan folk songs and dances, while she would return to New York City. "He had done a lot of the work that he'd hoped to do in Lhasa and around central Tibet, and he was finally ready to move on," Culley recalls. "He wanted to go to Shigatse and then to the west. He was hoping to stay out there for a while, and he seemed pretty excited about that." At the same time, Culley told Glow, Choephel seemed ill-at-ease. They had worked together for two months, and now Choephel would be completely on his own, without anyone to touch base with. It was 29-year-old Choephel's first visit to Tibet since he was two, when his mother had carried him on her back over the Himalayas to India. "He kept trying to think of things for me to tell people, and he gave me a couple of letters to mail in the States. He didn't give me any videotapes to take out. He had thought about that very hard and decided against it, because they could very easily be confiscated from me." Fortunately, Choephel had met other American tourists to whom he could entrust his work. Those letters and tapes were the last anyone would hear from him until February 1996, when Dorji Rinchen, who had been released from the Nyari detention center in Shigatse the previous October, learned that people around the world were looking for one of his fellow prisoners.
Ngawang Choephel grew up in the Tibetan refugee settlement of Mundgod in southern India, where he attended the Central School for Tibetans until the age of 15. Recognized as a talented musician and gifted vocalist, he obtained a diploma in Tibetan music and dance from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala. He taught music at Tibetan schools in Mundgod and Bylakuppe until 1993, when he was awarded a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to continue his studies in the United States at Middlebury College in Vermont. There he learned Western musical notation so that he could create a record of Tibetan folk music in a form accessible to a general audience. He also taught a college class on Tibetan flute and demonstrated traditional Tibetan folk dances and songs for local schoolchildren, as well as touring the US with two other Tibetans in December 1993 to conduct workshops for Tibetan communities. His talent caught the eye of Janet Gyatso, Professor of Religion at Amherst College, and he made plans with her to collaborate on a project to translate into English many of the songs that he performed. Heidi Melz, then administrator of the Fulbright grants offered through the Tibetan Scholarship Program of the Tibet Fund in New York, reports that Choephel also raised money to begin work on a film entitled "Melody in Exile," about the cultural and historical context of oral traditions in Tibetan music. In his proposal for this project, Choephel wrote:
It is imperative that this rich culture be preserved now through the transcription of poems and music into visual forms... Without proper care and preservation, there is a great danger that much of this musical heritage will be lost, as it exists primarily in oral form and has never before been written and recorded.
A musical heritage that is passed on orally from one generation to the next slowly suffocates in a police state where people are afraid even to look at or speak to each other, not knowing who might be a spy or informer or who might be observing from a distance. Choephel was less afraid of the Chinese military forces that have occupied Tibet since 1950 than of what would happen to Tibetan folk culture if we didn't take steps to preserve it. "He was so passionate for the music," Wendy Cook, a former girlfriend now working full-time in Boston on Choephel's case, told The Burlington (VT) Free Press. "He felt if he didn't go back there and record these elders and listen to them and watch them, that a whole generation of tradition would be lost."
Kathryn Culley first met Choephel at Tibet House in New Delhi in the summer of 1994, before these projects were formalized. It was a miserable day during the rainy season, and each was killing time waiting to return to the US the following day. "We ended up spending the day together and talking. He told me about his music studies, and he said that part of the reason he was going back was to raise money for a project that he was trying to get together. He had it all in his head, but I don't think it was really organized yet. He was very excited about it. I wasn't thinking about working with him at that time, but it sounded so interesting and he seemed like a great person to do this." Before boarding their separate flights, they said they'd get together if he ever visited New York.
It might have remained like that, except that one day in the winter of 1994-95, Culley found herself entering the Tibet Building, at 241 East 32nd Street in New York City, just as Choephel was leaving. Their conversation continued where it had left off. Choephel announced that he had obtained some funding, found a sponsor, and made several other arrangements for his project. His desire to return to his homeland and his dedication to the cause of preserving Tibetan culture were infectious. Culley says, "I had never thought about preserving the culture in this way. 'Oh, let's save Tibetan music because it's a big part of the culture and so many of the different cultural aspects are preserved in the music (or are in the music, whether or not they're preserved).' It really struck me: Wow, this is just so amazing that he's thinking of doing this! Why didn't anyone else ever think of doing it?" That it should not have occurred to her is not surprising when one considers how the Tibetan exile community is struggling to feed, house, educate and provide medical care for refugees scattered throughout the world while Western supporters devote most of their resources to rebuilding monasteries and preserving Dharma. Organizations such as TIPA and small troupes of musicians and dancers dedicated to preserving folk culture receive low priority when hundreds of nuns and monks are being imprisoned, tortured and killed for their devotion to Tibetan Buddhist religious autonomy and to the Dalai Lama. If workers in the field of folk culture are being similarly treated, they haven't received as much publicity. Asked whether Choephel was particularly religious or political, Culley replied, "Most Tibetans are at least somewhat interested in politics and religion. His family is Buddhist and he is, too; he would go to the temples and do the prostrations and prayers. His main reason for going to Tibet, though, was definitely to learn more about the music and to document the culture."
Now that the broad outlines of Choephel's project had been established, he was turning his attention to such practical matters as travel arrangements. He also thought it might be a good idea to obtain photographs as well as videotapes. Culley's freelance work gave her the flexibility to assist him on his project at the same time that she pursued her own visions and, after several meetings, she decided to join him in his travels. They arrived in Tibet in July 1995.
Their work together didn't go as smoothly as planned. As a Westerner with a camera, she drew attention to him. As a non-local Tibetan with a video camera, he drew attention to her. When they were together, it was difficult for either of them to do the work they had gone there to do. Both of them were stopped by police, questioned, and made to produce their travel documents on several occasions. Culley describes Choephel as being by nature a kind, quiet person, introverted and reflective. With a feeling of always being watched, he was hesitant to tell others about his project. "He didn't like to talk about it, because - with good reason, as it turns out - he didn't trust everybody. There are always spies or the possibility that you're telling the wrong person, who might talk about it. He wanted to keep it very quiet, because he knew there could always be problems."
According to Amnesty International, Choephel has an Indian Identity Certificate but, as this is not recognized for travel in China, he traveled to Tibet as an "overseas Chinese" visitor with a document issued by the Chinese authorities in India. As such, he was accorded much more freedom to travel than was Culley under the laws and regulations imposed by the Chinese in Tibet. "I think he could go anywhere," Culley says. "Not that it was easy for him, because everybody could tell he was from outside just by looking at him. The Tibetans know, and the Chinese know, if you're a foreigner or not."
At one point in their travels, Choephel and Culley attended a music festival at Samye monastery and met a troupe of lha mo (Tibetan folk opera) performers who invited the pair to visit them in their small village. It was a wonderful opportunity for Choephel to record in a private setting, to transcribe songs, and to obtain specific documentation about the origins and meanings of the songs, the contexts in which they were performed and by whom, and other information that could only be obtained from Tibetans who had devoted many years to musical study and practice. This was the kind of work he'd been trying to do, but he had to work so "subtly," as Culley puts it, that there weren't many times he had been in a situation where he could both take footage and ask questions.
They arrived in the village at nightfall. Prior to their arrival, their host, the senior member of the troupe, had asked permission from the local authorities for Choephel to conduct his videotaping. Culley explains, "He knew there was a possibility that if he did this without notifying anyone, they could get in trouble." She recounts what happened later that evening:
At eleven o'clock that night, a representative of the police came into the house to question Ngawang about his video camera. The guy was Tibetan, but he was definitely pro-Chinese, and he was very difficult, very stubborn and harsh. I couldn't understand most of what he said, but I got the drift. You could tell that he wasn't friendly and he wasn't saying nice things. He and Ngawang and I were in this room, and there was a lot of argument going on. After he'd left, Ngawang told me what had happened: The guy basically denied privileges to do the videotaping. He said, "You're not allowed to do this, and I don't know what you're doing here anyway. You shouldn't be here!" He gave Ngawang a lot of trouble, saying "I should take your video camera!" and "What about this woman - what is she doing here? She shouldn't be here!" Ngawang had tried to stay calm and to reason with him, explaining that he was interested in music and all we wanted to do was tape some songs. He said nothing about his project, of course. So nothing came out of it except that I'm sure a report got written about it. He didn't confiscate anything. He just said that we should leave the next day, and Ngawang said, "Okay."
The members of the lha mo troupe discussed this the next day and decided to allow Choephel to record them as planned, but they didn't want Culley to take photographs. In the afternoon, Choephel and Culley met with the performers under the trees on the grounds of a monastery at the outskirts of the village. They spent several hours together and Choephel did a lot of taping. Occasionally Culley taped him as he spoke with the performers and took notes about the songs.
"If they mentioned any interesting song, Ngawang would have them sing it for him and do the dancing. Since I couldn't take photos, I just sat and watched and did the taping when Ngawang wanted me to," Culley recalls. "It was a good day, and I could see Ngawang was really happy. It ended up getting late, so we stayed a second night and then left the next morning."
No one in the troupe was ever given any trouble over that as far as she knows, but after Culley and Choephel arrived in a neighboring village, they were stopped on the street and questioned by two police officers. They told Culley that the village was restricted and that she didn't have the proper permit to be there. She was instructed to proceed to the next city and obtain a permit from the Public Security Bureau (PSB), the division of the police that deals with foreigners. Choephel's presence there wasn't questioned. When she got to the PSB office, the response Culley received was "Are you joking? We don't ever issue individual permits." - "Which is always their line, these days at least" she adds. During periods of heightened restrictions, group tours are more likely to receive permits because they can be more easily monitored and controlled by their guides. There are a few places in the vicinity of Lhasa where one may go without first requesting permission and purchasing a permit. "But they were denying everybody; it was impossible for anybody to get a permit to go anywhere. It was always denied, unless you had an arranged tour with a tour guide." After that, Culley and Choephel decided to do more work apart from each other, meeting only occasionally. Choephel remained in the area for several days, while Culley returned to Lhasa.
As the summer drew to a close, Culley and Choephel's ability to work and travel together became even more constrained. Preparations were underway to "celebrate" the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. "It wasn't like anyone had been overtly asked to leave, but the Chinese were clamping down on everything, and the closer it got to September, the worse it got," Culley says. "They were raising prices to go anywhere. If you tried to go outside of Lhasa, it was almost impossible. The Chinese usually wouldn't let you on the buses to go out anywhere. They would tell you, 'Foreigners aren't allowed to go on this bus,' 'You're not allowed to go to this village - it's closed,' You weren't allowed to do anything. They were trying to keep everyone in Lhasa and keep an eye on you." Culley heard rumors that when the time for the celebrations drew near, all foreigners would be ordered to leave so that hotel rooms could be occupied by visiting Chinese dignitaries. Shortly before leaving the country, she witnessed a group of officious-looking Chinese men in suits inspecting the rooms in the hotel where she was staying.
When they parted in Lhasa, Choephel didn't seem particularly concerned about how he would get to Shigatse or the further reaches of Tibet. He told Culley he would continue work on his project until November or until he ran out of money, and then would visit his family in Mundgod before returning to the US. Given the nature of his work and the primitive state of communications in Tibet, she wasn't surprised not to hear from him during autumn. No one knew that he was missing until January 1996, when Choephel's mother appeared at the Bureau of the Dalai Lama in New Delhi to ask for assistance in locating her son. Telephone calls and E-mails criss-crossed the globe, and the alarm was raised.
Dorji Rinchen, an exiled Tibetan businessman, didn't learn of the search until February. According to Amnesty International, Rinchen left Tibet two years ago to settle in India, but was detained by police in Shigatse on August 14, 1995, while visiting relatives. A document given to Rinchen's wife by the authorities states that he was detained because he did not have valid travel documents. However, Rinchen has testified that he was accused by the police of "carrying documents produced by the Tibetan government-in-exile about the Panchen Lama reincarnation issue" and that he was also accused of having "come to Tibet with the purpose of disrupting the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Tibet Autonomous Region." In September 1995, Rinchen was transferred to Nyari detention center and on September 16th, he says, he "was shocked to see two prison officials bringing in Ngawang Choephel." He had previously met Choephel in Nepal.
Rinchen stated that during their two brief conversations in Nyari detention center, Choephel said that he had been taken into custody from the marketplace in Shigatse and talked about the work he had been doing recording traditional Tibetan music and dance on video. He also said that his travel documents, camera, and two video tapes had been confiscated. When Rinchen was released on October 8th, he says, "Ngawang Choephel was still in prison at that time and he appeared to be in good health."
However, the health of a Tibetan prisoner is never assured. John Ackerly, director of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) notes, "It is not uncommon for Tibetans to be detained and imprisoned without any formal charges for months while the case is being investigated. It is during this time, when the prisoner is being questioned, that the most intensive torture and abuse routinely occurs. The longer it takes for us to hear about it, the greater the chance that his fate would have been sealed." Dorji Rinchen provided a detailed account of his own maltreatment and torture in Nyari detention center, which included being "strapped and stretched on a wooden plank and left without food for the night" and being placed in solitary confinement without food or clothing. He testified that, while being interrogated, he was beaten and hit with sticks: "They hit me all over my body and boxed my face. My eyes were stung with each blow. During the whole interrogation session, I was handcuffed and, by the time they had finished questioning and torturing me, my wrists were bleeding." Rinchen also testified that, while in Nyari detention center, he was given boiled water for breakfast and that lunch was the last meal of the day and consisted of either a Tibetan bun or rice, with boiled water to drink. His relatives were not allowed to bring food or clothing. Rinchen was released after 54 days of detention and left Tibet on October 13th.
Rinchen and Choephel's fellow prisoners included Lobsang Tsultrim, a 20-year-old monk from Tashilhunpo monastery, the abbot and many monks from the monastery, and several laypeople who have spent numerous months in detention in connection with the disputed choice of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. Dorji Rinchen later said, "One night, Ngawang Choephel sang for the prisoners, and was given a big applause by all." This wasn't typical behavior for Choephel, Culley says. "He doesn't like to bring a lot of attention to himself." She had known him to perform on the spur of the moment only a few times. She recalled one time in particular, when he was filming a group of four or five adolescent girls: "They were kind of shy and silly, and they were a little shy about singing, but someone had told him that one of them was a really good singer. We were out in a field and he was trying to get them to sing, so he sang songs for them, to motivate them. Finally they all ended up singing together." The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) has produced two videotapes based on the 16 hours of material that Choephel sent out of Tibet. At the beginning of the short version of the video, Culley points out, "if you hear a bunch of girls singing with really pretty, really beautiful voices - that's them singing."
Tibetan girls singing (recorded by Ngawang Choephel in Summer 1995)
A project like that undertaken by Choephel is not an easy thing to do, Culley comments. "It's a really difficult thing, but I think it's important. Even from seeing the small amounts of footage that came out on the video, you can see that he really was doing a good job. And that's only a tiny, tiny fraction of even the fraction of stuff that came out with the people. I know there's a lot more that's in Tibet, confiscated. He was doing what he went there to do. To say that it's a shame his work was cut short is an understatement."
Culley's sentiments are shared by the students and faculty members who knew Choephel at Middlebury College; by summer break, they had sent over 200 letters to Chinese officials in Washington and Beijing. Prof. Jay Pillay, an ethnomusicologist who was Choephel's advisor, said "His absence is very real. It is not about some abstract Tibetan who has been detained. At this point, we feel that time is of the essence, and we are simply doing all that we can." However, the college administration, while "supportive," has declined to take a formal position on Choephel's case, according to college spokesperson Phil Benoit, interviewed by The Burlington Free Press. Other groups, including Amnesty International, the Geneva-based human-rights group Antenna, International Campaign for Tibet, and Students for a Free Tibet have mobilized to win Choephel's freedom.
We may only hope that Ngawang Choephel's fellow prisoners have lots of songs to teach him, and that he will be able to pass them on to others if and when his release is obtained. That is, assuming he is still alive. Chinese authorities have not yet confirmed that Choephel is being detained, nor have they released any information regarding his whereabouts, the charges against him, his sentence (if he has been sentenced) or his condition.
Special thanks to Kathryn Culley. The photograph above of Ngawang Choephel at Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, was taken by her in June 1995.
Information for this article was also provided by Amnesty International, International Campaign for Tibet, New York Office of Tibet, Students for a Free Tibet, The Tibet Fund, and World Tibet Network News.
Ngawang Choephel: Portrait of a Political Prisoner (6:46) and Missing in Tibet (26:46) were produced by Robin Garthwait and Dan Griffin, with narration by Goldie Hawn and Peter Coyote. Copies of the videos and further information about the campaign to free Ngawang Choephel are available from:
© 1996-97 by Shebar Windstone. This article was first published in the Summer 1996
issue of Glow magazine. Thanks to Geoffrey Sherrard of Glow for technical assistance.