Ani Choying Drolma: The Touring Nun
A journey from an abused child to an angry nun to a globe-trotting Buddhist chanter and peace messenger
A.R. Rahman, who, on a good day,Â can turn the heart on its axis, triedÂ merging the worlds of fire and iceÂ in 2013. In the third season of the popularÂ television music series MTV Coke Studio, heÂ brought together Nepalese nun Ani ChoyingÂ Drolma, austere in crimson and mustard,Â and Jordanian vocalist Farah Siraj, all smilesÂ and silver, in a song called “Zariya.” Drolma’sÂ chants made up the ambience in the track likeÂ birdsong in a forest.
Drolma’s voice is for those who valueÂ silence. It’s a different texture, more mellowÂ and thoughtful and inward- and upwardlooking.Â Her albums (she’s released 11 so far)Â are a mix of Buddhist mantras, invocationsÂ and supplications, heavy words filled with aÂ light sound. “The way I sing on stage is the wayÂ I’ve been trained to sing in a meditative way,”Â she says. “Since it’s a melody, people see it asÂ singing, but it’s not singing for entertainment.Â I’m not singing tragic love songs or somethingÂ meaningless. It’s a meditation practice forÂ me, and I continue to do it in the same way.”Â Lessening the listener’s burdens, which isÂ what Drolma’s voice does, is a responsibilityÂ no singer should have to bear, but Drolma’sÂ original calling means she doesn’t have aÂ choice.
Drolma, 45, joined the Nagi GompaÂ monastery in Kathmandu at the age of 13Â because her parents gifted her a miserableÂ childhood. Her father was a batterer, and herÂ mother a silent witness. “If my father wouldÂ get angry over something, he’d pour it outÂ on my mother and me,” she says. “At home,Â I was never given the feeling that it’s okayÂ to be a child, that it’s okay to run around.Â Every time I would get distracted withÂ playing outside, my father would drag meÂ home by my hair. Somehow this environmentÂ made an impression on me that if I were toÂ get married, it would be the worst decisionÂ I’d make. It would mean being dominated,Â discriminated. The only alternative I had wasÂ to become an ani [Tibetan for nun] and enterÂ a nunnery. Once you become a nun, peopleÂ respect your choice.”
Great luck usually follows great misfortuneÂ and Drolma’s guru at the monastery, TulkuÂ Urgyen Rinpoche, was one of the greatestÂ Vajrayana masters of his time. “EnteringÂ the monastery was like entering paradise.Â Nobody beat me up; nobody made me work.Â The most special thing was to be with myÂ teacher. Whatever goodness I have in meÂ today is the blessing of him.”
Like morning prayers are taught to schoolÂ kids, everyone at the monastery was taughtÂ to chant. “We would never sing-sing; it wasÂ more like bhajan-kirtan. The basic trainingÂ is the same for every Buddhist monk. ButÂ every individual has different vocal abilities.Â Some people can sing more melodiously andÂ the others don’t have that flexibility.” Drolma’sÂ voice, haunting and soothing, struck a chordÂ in a visiting musician. “The person whoÂ thought my voice had any commercial valueÂ was a guitarist from America called SteveÂ Tibbetts. That’s why he proposed we do anÂ album together.” That album was Cho, whichÂ released in 1997, a year after her guru’s death.Â From 1998 onwards, Drolma starting touringÂ the world, with the U.S. and Europe as herÂ main prayer halls.
Her peers were uneasy about her newÂ life on the road. “Some people appreciated,Â some people were annoyed. They were veryÂ critical of me because the conventional ideaÂ of a Buddhist nun is not someone who singsÂ outside. But I was open-minded, and I wasÂ clear in my heart that I wasn’t breaking anyÂ rules.” Today, Drolma is travelling everyÂ month””sheÂ performedÂ at the NationalÂ Center for the Performing Arts, Mumbai onÂ October 7th, and traveled to Hong Kong inÂ the same week.
Despite her high-flying career, Drolma’sÂ feet are firmly on the ground. “BecauseÂ people enjoy my singing, I’m able to generateÂ resources [read money] through which I canÂ do meaningful things in Nepal,” she says.Â “I run two free schools for higher educationÂ for girls, and I run a hospital specificallyÂ helping people who are suffering from kidneyÂ failure. I work very closely with UNICEF asÂ I’m their national goodwill ambassador…Â I would say I’m following the path of Buddha.Â My singing ability is a magic wand. It has theÂ potential to not only fulfill my own wishesÂ but others’ wishes as well. The more it’s usedÂ for the benefit for all, the more powerful itÂ becomes.
Listen to A.R. Rahman’s “Zariya” featuring Ani Choying Drolma, Farah Siraj and more below: