Saturday, 5 October 2013

A Heartwarming Teaching Moment at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival

As Thimphu is only a thirty minute drive from Chamgang, Lu and I decided to take some Class VII students down to the annual Mountain Echoes Literary Festival for a little bit of a Sunday cultural injection and the chance to see some real life authors in their natural habitat.

We arrived at the Tarayana Centre a bit early, so after a compulsory photo shoot, we walked down to the Volunteer Artists Studio, Thimphu, VAST where the lovely Asha Karma (cofounder and well known artist) very graciously showed our students around and gave us a handful of exhibition programs to take home for inspiration. He talked to us about the bottle cap collecting competition VAST initiated in many Bhutanese schools to generate recycled resources for large scale art projects and also to teach students about environmental responsibility. The competition also included collecting plastic PET bottles for a man building a lhakang (temple) in his village. "Oh, he's building the lakhang out of recycled plastic?" I asked, a bit surprised. Asha Karma looked shocked, "No, no, he gets money for recycling the plastic which he uses to build the lhakhang." "Oh, silly me, of course."

So hard to get the kids to smile for a photo!

But we managed...

Lula, Asha Karma and students at the VAST gallery
Culture faux-pas aside, Asha Karma's work is a beautiful and unique blend of traditional Bhutanese painting and more contemporary influences. Here are some of his paintings for your enjoyment. You can see more of his work here.
Buddha grid
Satyr Tragopan

Dragon for the Buddha at Taj Tashi
When we arrived at the festival we were greeted by Lucy's friend and colleague, the excellent Dolma Roder, cultural anthropologist extraordinaire who was not only involved in the festival as a facilitator but was also being interviewed along with her mother, famous Bhutanese writer Ashi Kunzang Choden.

Jerry Pinto showing the students through his graphic novel

Dolma very kindly organised for Mumbai writer, Jerry Pinto, to come and talk to our students. As an ex-teacher himself, he was well at home introducing himself to the kids and making them feel welcomed and included. He spoke to them about the creative process involved in writing his graphic novel When Crows Are White and encouraged the students to write down some of the images and ideas that come from their dreams. He finished the session by giving us a copy of the book for our library.

Tandin Tshewang soaking up the writing secrets

Me, doing the same, apparently
We then sat in on Jerry's formal session in which he discussed not only his graphic novel, but also his highly autobiographical first novel, his biographies of famous Bollywood icons, his children's books and his love poems. He spoke with a great deal of honesty, passion and humility and I know that even if they didn't understand everything he was saying, the kids appreciated how alive and real he was (kids always appreciate a sparky adult, right?).

After the session we joined the crowds for some fancy biscuits and tea, looking a little bit conspicuous as the only school group amongst many of Thimphu's well-heeled elite but made it fun by managing to do some celebrity spotting as Bhutan's newly elected Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay was also in attendance much to the delight of the students. We then sat down and shared a reading of When Crows Are White. 

We only lost three students into the river - my lowest attrition rate on a field trip yet
For a break we headed down to VAST's sculpture garden which involved a lot of silly mucking around on a bridge and Deoki surviving a risky encounter with a giant fish.

Deoki and the fish
Next stop, a fantastic drama workshop being conducted in the Nehru-Wangchuk centre where the kids got to hear some great impromptu story-telling, beat-boxing and a whole group of adults clucking and scratching around pretending to be chickens and a Bhutanese boy pouring his heart out with the story of his first girlfriend - which our much more conservative students had a good giggle at.

With teenage stomachs rumbling it was time for some tucker. A few of my first choice restaurants were closed but lucky this trusty momo restaurant near Chang Lam Plaza was still open. The kids needed a little bit of encouragement before they would relax around accepting food from us - they are so respectful of their teachers that some were worried that it would appear disrespectful to receive from us in this way - but soon everyone was happily hooking in to some momos or veg thukpa. Yummmmmm! Then it was time to pile into a couple of share taxis for the ride back to Chamgang.

A bit of a naff heartwarming teacher moment at the end of it all

A week later, I was reading over the recounts that I had asked the students to write about the field trip. One of the Class VII boys, Sangay Lhendrup, had decided to write his response as a poem about Jerry Pinto. As I read it, I began to realise just how attentively Sangay had been listening to and absorbing everything that Jerry had been saying. I also realised how lovingly he had been able to stitched together all of Jerry's positive qualities despite Jerry's constant self-deprication and openness in discussing his own faults during his talks. I then had one of those cliched but wonderful spine-tingling teaching experiences where I realised how lucky I am to be teaching such a beautiful, thoughtful and loving group of students and how going to the extra effort of taking them on this trip had obviously had a worthwhile impact on at least one, very deserving student and possibly one equally deserving writer. 

Later, when I forwarded the email to Jerry, he wrote back to say that reading it had caused him to sniffle a little and presumably not because he was suffering from a late summer cold. Happy vibes all round.

Sangay's Poem


  1. So glad to read your blog Matt, lots of little links I look forward to following. Asha Karma's art is amazing and I must find the chance to visit VAST when I'm in Thimphu. It was a very lovely idea to take your students to the festival - they would have been thrilled. And the poem Sangay wrote is extraodinary. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for COMMENTING! I think you're my first! You should definitely try and see some more of Asha Karma's work - maybe we'll have to go to the Taj for brunch!

  3. LOVED this! So glad you included the poem!

  4. Wonderful to know some awesome work being done in Bhutan. Had started with reading the poem but went through this article. Great pictures. Depicts Bhutan as it is, and guess very few of us know how beautiful and simple the country and its people are!!! Thanks for sharing..

    1. Thanks Rucha, it was a fantastic day, made possible by some fantastic people, so I'm glad to be able to share it.