A Gathering of Student Writers and Artists

Since the first meeting of our advisory board at the beginning of August, Gen Takpa and I have spent much of our time meeting with educationists, Ladakhi language teachers, and community leaders, discussing our project and eliciting feedback as to what topics and methods were most essential for our book. Generally, everyone we have met emphasized the importance of our work, pointing out how rapidly Ladakhi culture is eroding among the younger generation, many of whom struggle to read their own language and have little awareness about the rich culture they could be inheriting. We have also researched other examples of cultural educational curricula, making use of the library at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies to draw inspiration from traditional Ladakhi folk stories and songs, publications from Tibet, as well as the odd English and Hindi children’s book.

In writing our curriculum outline, we sought to address: 1) what are the most pressing problems within Ladakh and, 2) how can cultural education, rooted in indigenous values, help to address these issues. By the end of August, we had written a list of twelve topics that we deemed most important based on our research. Rather than writing essays about these themes, we decided to address them in the form of stories, completely rooted in Ladakh, including in the architecture, landscape, people, clothing and food.

While our staff still includes professional Bhoti language writers, we concluded our project will be strengthened if we have the participation of more writers, and particularly young people. Ultimately, they will dictate the future of the culture and are better positioned to understand the problems emerging in Ladakhi society. To this end, we met with a group of 3rd year Shashtri (master’s) students at the Central Institute of Buddhist Studies, all of whom have attended intensive Bhoti language writing workshops and have the leading Bhoti skills among their peers. They will be responsible for translating some of our ideas into stories that capture the imagination of our 10-12-year-old audience. Equally important, we have also solicited the help of local youth artists, members of the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO), to provide 3-5 illustrations for each story. At the end of August, we held the first meeting where all our writers and artists gathered together to discuss our vision for the project.

Thupstan Takpa began the meeting by expressing gratitude to everyone who had assembled. He said he was particularly grateful that everyone present (except for me) was Ladakhi. In his four years researching and writing Bhoti textbooks for the Spituk Khamzang Society, the core staff consisted of more Tibetans than Ladakhis. “Though the Tibetans have helped us a lot, it is a sad situation when we must rely on non-Ladakhis to develop our own language and culture,” he commented. Our project, by contrast, was to be executed by Ladakhis for Ladakhis.

The meeting also demonstrated the linguistic divide that emerges based on different school systems. While the CIBS students have excellent written and spoken Ladakhi skills, most are much less confident in English. Contrastingly, our artists all speak English fluently, but none feel comfortable reading, much less writing, Bhoti. This is a direct reflection of the schooling divide; the writers all attended schools in Ladakh which emphasized Bhoti language while the artists studied at English-medium schools, mainly outside of Ladakh, without Bhoti instruction.

Our gathering was thus an exercise in multilingualism and bilteracy. Gen la conducted the meeting in Ladakhi but I needed to translate our curriculum from written Tibetan into English for the artists, who were unable to read it. The writers would then ask questions or make comments in Ladakhi, the spoken language understood by the artists but not clearly by me, so Gen la would in turn translate into Tibetan for my sake. If the artists addressed me, they did so in English, requiring I translate their ideas into Tibetan for Gen la and the student writers.

The project is far from complete but everyone involved is convinced of its worth and importance. Recent years have seen the publication of a few children’s books set in Ladakh and a few others written in a colloquial Ladakhi (generally without correct Bhoti spelling and grammar). The artists at LAMO have done important work in pioneering an indigenous Ladakhi artistic style, distinct from the Tibetan umbrella under which it is usually placed. Our project, however, will be the first book set in Ladakh, written in colloquial Ladakhi (while still conforming to the rules of written Bhoti), that has exclusively Ladakhi art. Once completed, our book will be an important step in creating a vernacular children’s literature and promoting a local artistic style completely rooted in Ladakh.

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