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Tibetan Artist Keeps Folk Comedy Alive

Thupten looks perfectly composed as he pauses for a moment, waiting for the audience to finish laughing before spouting another tongue twister with a straight face. Once again, the room is filled with a roar of laughter.


For 60 years, the folk artist in the brown Tibetan gown has triggered laughter wherever he goes. Thupten's comedy circuit has taken him to outlying Tibetan communities and major metropolises throughout China and even clubs in Europe and the United States.


He was among the first to adapt xiangsheng, or crosstalk, a traditional form of stand-up comedy performed in the Tibetan language.


Today, the 70-year-old's main worry is finding a worthy successor to pass down his Tibetan talk show techniques.


"The audience is more demanding these days and it's increasingly hard for the young comedians to make them laugh," he said.


As a child, Thupten became a monk in a lamasery in Lhasa, where he not only passed the rites of Buddhism but also received training to perform traditional Tibetan opera.


"Our living Buddha loved folk arts and inspired us to learn. We even formed an amateur troupe to give performances around Lhasa," he said.



At the lamasery he also learned the epic poem, King Gesar, which at a million lines is considered the world's longest. Written 1,000 years ago, the epic tells how an ancient Tibetan king conquered the devils of other tribes.


While studying the poem, Thupten discovered his gift for gab, an essential requirement in performing comedy routines.


Thupten eventually left the lamasery to become a professional performer. In 1962, he followed Losang Doje, known as the founder of Tibetan crosstalk, and became a comedian with the Ethnic Art Troupe in Lhasa.


A versatile artist, Thupten soon gained fame for his creative ethnic ballads, dances and his unique crosstalk performances.


He and the eight-member troupe toured Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Greece and Norway in the 1980s.


Yet Thupten's success story is full of trials and troubles, as even the good old days lacked financial rewards.


"In the heyday of Tibetan crosstalk in the 1980s, we were often invited to perform in the countryside. All eight of us had to live in two small offices for the night and the food was meagre at best," he said.


"We were poorly paid back then, and my wife insisted I quit the job and make a more stable living as a farmer."


But the love of art, laughter and applause from local herders kept him going.


When he officially retired from his troupe in 1998, he and 15 other retirees formed a new group in the hope of attracting fresh blood to the craft. For more than a decade, he's been headhunting young artists with potential to take his place on stage.


He said that he's finally found "the younger version" of himself a high school teacher in Shannan Prefecture who plays numerous musical instruments, sings and writes and performs comic dialogues in Tibetan.


"I hope he'll be my replacement someday and carry forward the art of humor," he said.


(China Daily June 9, 2006)

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