Reviewed by ROBERT A. PAUL City College of New York
The book is divided into six chapters, only the last of which actually deals with the dances themselves. The first five give brief outlines of Sherpa religion, general Sherpa ethnography, the history of Tibetan Buddhist dramatic forms, the physical setting of the Mani-Rimdu festival, and the trhe-dbang ritual that takes place on the day before the dancing. These chapters are of insufficient scholarship and sophistication to satisfy the anthropologist or area specialist. However, it is not Jerstad’s main intention in these chapters to add to the ethnographic literature on the Sherpas, but rather to provide a backmound for the lay reader, or the reader primarily interested in the dramatic aspects of Mani-Rimdu. But even for these purposes, the presentation is marred by numerous factual errors and misunderstandings of data that inevitably result when an attempt is made to analyze a culture without adequate field experience.
Fortunately, the chapter describing the actual dances does not require this introduction and might perhaps have been more profitably presented in the form of an article.
Jerstad presents the dramatis personae of the thirteen successive “acts” of the Mani-Rimdu dancing; in all but two cases the characters represent supernatural beings, and Jerstad provides a discussion of the place of each in the Sherpa pantheon. Here as elsewhere his expositions rely too heavily on a textual approach to Buddhism and too little on direct observation. For example, one of his themes is that the dancing is in part concerned with depicting the struggle between Buddhism and the early Bon religion of Tibet. Such an analysis is possible; but it would not truly represent how the Sherpas themselves understand the drama.
The resolution of the struggle between these two religions long ago resulted in one of the more comprehensive syncretistic religious traditions in the Buddhist world; and the logical contradictions between “Buddhist,” “Pre-Buddhist,” and “Tantric” elements appear puzzling only to Western observers, not to Sherpas.
In his discussion of the two nonsupernatural characters, the comic figures Mi-tshering and Rtogs-Man, Jerstad uses similar arguments, suggesting that the acts ridicule the followers of other rival religions, namely Ch’an Buddhism and Indian Yoga. In these cases he bases his theory on interviews with informants rather than on secondary sources, and hence it is more open to serious consideration. I would argue, however, that these dances are regarded by most lay Sherpas and monks as comic, but not satirical, and that the attitude toward the characters is one of respect rather than ridicule.
Jerstad seems to be unaware that he has blithely wandered into an area that anthropologists consider one of their sacred preserves, the analysis of religious ritual, and he makes no use of the vast literature on the subject. When he does venture an analysis of some symbolic aspect of the ceremony, it strikes the anthropologist as rather innocent in its theoretical underpinnings. Furthermore, for the Sherpa specialist, the interpretations reveal an absence of firsthand acquaintance with real Sherpa religious thinking.
Jerstad never mentions, for example, the fact that the dancing is part of an exorcism ritual dedicated to the patron deity of the monastery, lasting over two weeks, and only culminating in the public performances that he describes.
In the absence of anthropological analysis, one might have expected the author’s background in theater would yield some new insights or approaches. Here the reader will be disappointed, for Jerstad has not attempted to record or discuss the music, choreography, costumes, or dramatic actions in any systematic way. No use has been made of choreometrics or any form of dance or musical notation. Neither the physical actions nor the meanings of the actions of the characters has been comprehensively described.
And while there are a few black and white photographs, these have not been used as they might have been to record systematically the costumes, masks, and other physical aspects of the dancing.
Although he is not himself a Tibetan scholar, Jerstad had his informants transcribe many important native terms in ibetan script. He was then able to have these transliterated and translated by Tibetan speakers in the United States. If in no other respect, this book stands out in the field of works written by nonspecialists (and even some specialists) about the Sherpas and other Himalayan groups in that the Tibetan scholar can at least understand what the author is supposed to be talking about.