Film “The Song Collector” shows a lost Buddhist culture’s revival in India

by Danish Mehboob, The Seattle Globalist, Jun 4, 2016

Seattle, WA (USA) -- Seattle filmmaker Erik Koto, devoted six years to directing and producing “The Song Collector”: a story about the fight to preserve a singular Buddhist culture in Ladakh, India.

And to say that the “song collector” featured in it, Morup Namgyal, made it all worth his while, is an understatement. This cultural preservation activist has seen his pristine and singular Buddhist culture diminished in the face of war and globalization. Since the ’60s,  he has built a movement and a crop of Ladakhi schools to protect it.

“What Morup is doing is inspirational and a great tale: from the grass roots, [Ladakhis] can make a difference in their region and culture,” says Koto.

Situated on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh maintained an enduring presence as an independent Buddhist kingdom for centuries, but its culture quickly eroded beginning in the mid-1960s, when the Indian government constructed a road into its kingdom to defend its borders from China and Pakistan. This set Ladakh on a faster track to modernization.

Namgyal has walked hundreds of miles collecting and documenting 1,300 songs to recover Ladakh’s lost oral history.

Koto first met Namgyal in 2009 while producing a short film for a fledgling Ladakhi school. Since the activist is a national hero with a household name throughout India, he was struck by Namgyal’s humble, hospitable and soft-spoken nature.

“I found him to be a magnetic personality. That’s when I realized this is someone who could convey his story and could be a character on film,” Koto remembers.

The introduction and short film he made about the school in 2009 snowballed into the 54-minute “Song Collector” documentary showing at Northwest Film Forum tomorrow night, where both Namgyal and Koto will be present.

The songs Namgyal collected are a window into many of the parts defining Ladakh’s past, including its unique language and pristine landscape.

Namgyal’s song collection is also a community cultural repository. In the long-held oral tradition, a folk song is sung with every stage, aspect and major milestone in life, like marriage and cultivating agriculture. Other songs reflect the dying language and historical milestones, like when India’s economic pressure began spurring new development to displace the Ladakhi way of life. These song stories are especially significant to a people who have no written tradition of passing on history to the next generation.

“Folk singing is a very generational and hereditary pursuit,” Koto adds. “Namgyal’s family is an important example of this. Even his grandson is learning about his homeland and culture through the songs’ lyrics and language.”

Namgyal’s grandson attends the Ladakhi school his grandpa started, which teaches the people’s history and language, Bhoti, through song. The schools Namgyal started have had a broad impact: more than 2,000 students on eight campuses now attend these schools, which graduate 100 students per year, says Koto.

“Song Collector” film editor Gretchen Burger relates to the larger themes of Namgyal’s story, and believes that others who struggle to live in the modern world, will, too.

“You know, in a way, it takes a small story to tell a big story. And, if we do it right, there’s that important theme about a very universal quality of life,” she explains.

Though Koto, an executive at Seattle-based company QuestionPro, says he misses the Ladakh people, he probably won’t miss the traditional music.

“Ceremonial music is loud and not particularly soothing, but the lyrics have a very important story that only revealed itself later,” he says.

One was “Leh Palace,” written in the 16th century. The song describes the lama who blessed the cornerstone of the Leh  Palace, which according to Koto, is like the Eiffel Tower of Ladakh. It also recounts the construction and opening of the palace. This history is only documented in song.

Though his appreciation for the stories and even the music have grown over time, “it won’t be something I run out and buy a CD of,” Koto chuckles.

Looking back on his experience over six years, Koto says that he finds the film has already been a huge success, which to him, equates to the level of personal reward that he feels.

The film gave Koto major opportunity to explore a fascinating culture. Most of all, it gave him the opportunity to tell the story of Namgyal, a major force in India. To this day, Koto feels humbled to tell it, says Koto.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is that I didn’t hurry the film to get done.”

More information:
We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: