Standing at the very back on a raised bank you can get a panoramic view of the vast amphitheatre constructed by Lama Chokyi Gyaltsen under the direction of HH Karmapa. Three screens flank each side of a gigantic stage on two levels with a fantasy tree like a delicate Japanese cherry in blossom. As the lights focus on it, the colours change dramatically. (Is this the tree of enlightenment?) An enormous white seven petal lotus creates a breathtakingly beautiful minimalist background to this most extraordinary production of the life story of Milarepa, directed, produced and written by HH Karmapa, with actors from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala.
Seated on the stage on either side are five hundred monks and nuns who chant prayers in haunting melodies composed by Karmapa, almost like a Greek chorus, while the screens project pages of the text and impressive views of the icy peaks of the Himalayas where Milarepa meditated. This is both epic spectacle and close up, intimate drama.
From where I was sitting only the screen was visible, showing the agony and ecstasy of Milarepa’s heroic story: from sinner to saint in one lifetime. The actors performed in the stylized manner of Tibetan opera, with grand gestures and exaggerated characterization, appropriate for an epic production. It reminded me of the Mahabharata. HH Karmapa has a distinct flair for the big stage and his overall conception is truly theatrical. I think Cecil B de Mille would sign him up right away. By the way, the production lasted nearly 6 hours and in the freezing cold of New Year’s night in the plains of Bihar, it provided an authentic taste of Milarepa’s feats of endurance. Reports indicate there were about 20,000 people in the audience.
In the words of His Holiness: “Presenting the Milarepa namthar – the Life of Milarepa – musical drama on Western New Year’s Day, is actually a revival of a Tibetan tradition from the time of the 7th Karmapa, Choedrak Gyatso, when the festival of miracles was held on the first fifteen days of the Tibetan New Year. In those days they used to hold the Monlam gathering in the morning and then have dramatic performances based on the lives of the Buddha and great masters in the afternoon. This year’s Life of Milarepa is a way of ensuring that this tradition is not lost.
“Secondly it will be a reminder of Milarepa’s qualities, his purity and wholesomeness. People have read his story but now they will be able to see it and this should bring it alive for them. My hope is that it will plant a small seed of future liberation in all who watch it.
“There are many different versions of the Life of Milarepa but I have based the script for the play on the most famous one written by Tsang-Nyon-Heruka. It took me several months to write the script. I have changed the literary Tibetan into colloquial so that everyone can understand; and combined traditional Lhamo with contemporary drama.”