Disciples of a Crazy Saint: The Buchen of Spiti
Photographs by Patrick Sutherland

Long Gallery
9 December 2010 – 3 July 2011

Download exhibition flyer here

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Gatuk Namgyal dressed as the
elephant keeper from the play
Drimed Kunden. Sagnam, Spiti,
Himachal Pradesh, India. 2010.
The Buchen of Spiti are ritual experts and actors, disciples of the fifteenth-century “crazy saint” Thang Tong Gyalpo. They are famous for performing the Ceremony of Breaking the Stone, an elaborate exorcism ritual described by the tibetologist George de Roerich in the 1930s. Stone breakings are still commissioned in Spiti to combat illness and when houses are being built.

Buchen also enact a local form of the Tibetan Opera – Buddhist morality plays, delivered for the edification of village audiences, illustrating karmic principles through the dramatised biographies of Tibetan saints.

The stage also offers a space for uninhibited speech and earthy humour. Even the most harrowing stories can have comic interludes.

I visited Spiti several times in winter in order to join the Buchen on tour. I photographed their plays, the behind the scenes preparations, and the audiences. I wanted to capture the flavour and feel of the Buchen performances and the valued social role they play, as honoured guests within their host villages. I enjoyed the intimate connection the actors have with an audience crowded into an animal pen in the freezing cold.  I relished the slapstick and absurd humour, the prayer and deep emotion, the dancing and partying. When I recently gave back some of these images, one Buchen told me that my photographs were so awful that they had torn them up and thrown them in the fire.  Even allowing for the Buchen propensity for joking this seemed an extraordinary response, and became the stimulus for this project.

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Gatuk Sonam, head Buchen from Mud,
performs a stone breaking ceremony on
top of a house in Lhalung. Lhalung, Spiti,
Himachal Pradesh, India. 2006.
I returned in 2010 with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, carrying an archive of my own images of the Buchen taken over the last decade, as well as historical material. My aim was to negotiate a form of documentation that had value to both the Buchen and to me. In discussions, one Buchen, Sangey Gatuk, contrasted my unposed black and white reportage images with the colour portraits that villagers have in their albums and on their walls.

The latter are much more formalised encounters, which have the privileged status of uncommon events in a community where ownership of a camera has until recently been rare. For the Buchen, these images visually manifest pride in their identity.

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A performance of The Elephant, a
scene from the story of Prince Drimed
Kunden, one of the most popular plays
in the Buchen repertoire. Lara, Spiti,
Himachal Pradesh, India. 2004.
Much of what I had photographed they viewed as superficial. Buchen denigrate their improvised performances, the locally specific, unique, unwritten and intangible elements of Buchen theatre. They dismiss all this as mere entertainment, the filler between what is important – the stories as described in the written texts. Perhaps my work concretised the ambivalence felt by both the community and the Buchen themselves about these performances, and compromised their self-identification as serious religious practitioners. Drama, spectacle, sexuality, and joking are all essential elements of this local theatre, but not necessarily legitimised by text.  s4
Thanka detail photographed in Pin,
Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India. 2010.
There is a conflict between their sense of themselves as religious practitioners spreading the Dharma and their bawdy performances.

The form that this exhibition has taken, juxtaposing portraits and images of Buchen with details of thanka paintings, has emerged from a process of collaboration with the Buchen themselves, incorporating their own ideas about how to produce and present a visual record of their theatre, rituals and social role.

Patrick Sutherland is a documentary photographer and Reader in Photojournalism at the University of the Arts London.  He has been photographing in Spiti since 1993. 

His work has been exhibited internationally and is archived in the British Library.
Disciples of a Crazy Saint was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, with project partnership from the Pitt Rivers Museum.

Credits:

All photographs © Patrick Sutherland
Exhibition curated by Patrick Sutherland and Christopher Morton
Exhibition poster and leaflet design by Thomas Nicolaou