History 2016In the media

Bikinis, Buddhism and borrowed clothes

Sharmila Ganesan Ram

Since 2009, over 100 Tibetans have immolated themselves for the cause of freedom. Last Sunday, however, one Tibetan in Dharamshala threatened to set himself on fire for the cause of entertainment. Sporting sunglasses rimmed with blinking lights, this long-haired, bearded performer known as Lion Man lit two ends of a stick, rubbed one end between his legs and even lowered the flame into his pants, making women in the crowd shriek and shut their eyes.

The beauty of Miss Tibet, held in Dharamshala, has always been its lightness. No cops, no politicians, but plenty of small-town quirks embedded in its low-budget crown, making it an instant darling of the international media. Besides the delicious paradox of a western-style contest with a swimsuit round being held within the traditional Tibetan exile community, another major draw of Miss Tibet is its ponytailed founder, Lobsang Wangyal, a 46-year-old photojournalist unafraid of wearing baby pink pants.

In filmmaker Norah Shapiro’s documentary, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, Wangyal described himself as “the Tibetan Donald Trump” though he has thick hair, hates walls, and is in debt from funding the pageant. Shapiro prefers seeing Wangyal as “a consummate showman with a high penchant for drama and controversy”, while his friend and pageant judge for the evening, Sunita Singh, a yoga teacher, calls him someone “who likes to surround himself with beautiful women.” He has been rumoured to play favourites and accused of mudding up a culture with bikinis but “I don’t take anything personally,” he says.

For this year’s finale on 5 June, he arrived in a glittery Rs 10,000 black-and-red blazer funded by Tibetan entrepreneurs. “Will you jump into the pool in a chuba?” Wangyal screamed into the mike, referring to the traditional Tibetan pinafore dress. The controversial swimsuit round thus addressed, Wangyal adjusted his sash that said “director” and sat cross-legged on a cushion on stage, praying for the Dalai Lama’s long life for two minutes. Clearly, this pageant director knows how to work this audience.

Wangyal says he launched Miss Tibet in 2002 to empower women. “While there is no major discrimination in our community, there is no empowerment either,” says Wangyal, asking you to name Tibetan women in art, politics and entertainment.

The idea of the pageant made his friends laugh at its audacity. “But I am a doer,” he says, stumping up his own money for buying fireworks in Delhi, sourcing a sound system from Pathankot, and getting a local goldsmith to design a silver crown with blinking lights. While the show runs mostly on goodwill, this year a Tibetan businessman, Jangchup Nyendak, donated Rs 1 lakh.

Four times in the last 14 years, Miss Tibet has taken place with just one participant (“we call it a coronation then”) but this year, there were four contestants. “You have selected the girls more carefully than Lobsang Sangay has chosen his cabinet,” a first-time visitor told Wangyal, referring to the new PM of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.

As the four pant up a mountain to Bhagsu waterfall wearing bikinis under dresses and denims, they turn heads. Tenzing Dickey, an arts student, says she was surprised when her conservative mom gave her permission to wear a swimsuit. As she poses in her stringy bra, 2015 winner Pema Choedon’s motivational words run through her head. “Assume you’re already the winner,” Choedon had told her on the phone.

While past winners have gone on to jobs in media and fashion — Tsering Kyi is a newscaster for Voice of America and Tenzin Yangki is a model in Delhi — some like Choedon, have used the title to lend heft to the emerging wave of feminism within the community. “Tibetan women fear being judged so much, they never come on stage. What they require are not just platforms but role models,” says Choedon, 25, a JNU student who is a bit weary of the ruthless scrutiny that follows the title. “You should not be wearing torn jeans,” a stranger recently told her. “Are you alone in your room?” another man asked.

This unforgiving, small-town scrutiny surfaced during the talk and talent round of Miss Tibet 2016, where the audience mocked accents and rewarded dance moves with catcalls. Here, the participants arrived in gold-printed chubas with speeches on topics like the growing AIDS epidemic in Tibetan society, how climate change is affecting Tibet, and Buddhism. Tenzin Dawa, 17, who came from New York, spoke about Tibet’s melting glaciers. Denchen Wangmo, a nurse at Delhi’s Apollo Hospitals who watched YouTube tutorials on catwalking, advocated free sex education and free HIV tests. Tenzing Sangnyi, 21, a nursing student from Manali, said Buddhism believes suffering is inevitable so it is a good idea to be compassionate.

Her quiet confidence was matched by talent — Sangnyi sang two songs, one in Tibetan and one in English. She had heard of contestants who spent Rs 30,000 on just clothes for the pageant that promises Rs 1 lakh to the winner. “But I am not earning so I decided to be resourceful,” says Sangnyi, who borrowed make-up and clothes. “Also, I am not interested in materialism,” confesses Sangnyi. This came through in the dressing room before the finale. As her roommate Wangmo panicked about her earrings not being bright enough, Sangnyi calmed her down: “That’s okay. Shine from inside.”

Sangnyi laid out her mental finery in the final round. “If you do not win, how will you continue with your life?” the judge asked. Sangnyi replied: “If I don’t win, it means someone deserving has won and will represent Tibetan women and our country on international platforms. I will go on with my life, being happy that I was part of such a wonderful pageant and cause, and even without the title, will try to contribute to society.” The crown was hers right then.

Copyright © 2016 Bennet, Coleman, & Co. Ltd. Published in Times of India

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