Clown Acrobatics Brigade in Bhutan

Latest update May 15, 2018 Started on May 8, 2018

As the first stage of this multi-part project, the Clown Acrobatics Brigade will tour the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan in August 2018, offering free-of-charge interactive performances and workshops in acrobatics, clowning, and theatre. We are excited to be partnering with National Geographic Bhutan Travel Expert Bill Jones and the Minister of Education in Bhutan.

Our primary goal is to provide learning opportunities for disadvantaged and handicapped youth in schools, drug rehabilitation centers, and monasteries in rural areas of Eastern Bhutan with fewer opportunities and access to movement education and creative arts. Our secondary goal is to lay the groundwork for future work in Bhutan, including longer-term residencies and educational programming in schools in Eastern Bhutan. The relationships and trust we build face-to-face on this tour will be invaluable, opening the door for future work in the areas of Bhutan where it is most needed.

Help us raise $25,000 by June 15 to bring movement education and performance to less-privileged youth in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan:

May 8, 2018
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A history of clowning in Bhutan through the Atsara: A Sacred-Profane Character

The Atsara figure is an integral part of many Bhutanese festivals. Being a primary agent of mirth and merriment, the red face comical character holding a phallus is generally thought of as a clown at the tshechu festivals. The Atsara character, however, is more than just a clown for entertainment. The Atsara combines the spirit of the sacred and profane, wit and wisdom, humour and responsibility. He helps his audience not only to forget their worries and problems with his jokes but also to occasionally drop their normal sense of self-importance, hypocrisy and false propriety through his pranks. The name, Atsara, is said to have come from the Sanskrit term acārya, which is transcribed in Tshuyig as ཨ་ཙརྱ་. Acārya refers to a teacher or scholar and was a title used to refer to the Indian masters. For instance, the three famous Indian acāryas who have shown great kindness to Tibet are said to be 1) Atiśa Dīpaṅkara, the white acārya, Dampa Sangye, the black acārya and Padmasambhava, the variegated acārya. There was also a red acārya from India who came to Tibet in the 11th century and is sadly remembered for his licentious behaviour, which is said to have corrupted Buddhism in the name of tantric practice. It is difficult to say, without any evidence, on which group of personalities Bhutan’s Atsara character is based and how it has evolved. Many traditional scholars claim that Atsara is a parody of Indian mahāsiddhas, some of whom were enlightened mavericks living unconventional lives while being highly realized Buddhist saints. These enlightened saints, who were renegades on the fringes of society, practiced crazy wisdom as did the divine madmen of Tibet such as Drukpa Kunley. Whether the Atsara figure is a caricatural reminder of unorthodox saints of crazy wisdom or remnants of loose lustful behaviour of some priests who abused tantric Buddhism, it is today one of Bhutan’s unique and exotic cultural institution. With a red face to symbolize burning passion and a large thunderbolt or phallus to signify masculine power and fertility, the Atsara plays a very important role in Bhutan’s major festivals. Curiously, it is also a Bhutanese cultural character, who is dressed in trousers and a jacket with fanciful patches. Unless he is replaced by other comical figures such as the Gathpo, as is the case during some festivals in central Bhutan, the Atsara is the chief clown to entertain the crowd and the master of ceremony to help the festival run smoothly. The Atsara guides the mask dancers if they forget their steps, tie the masks and silk robes if they fall loose, and provide any support the dancers may need once in the public arena. Often, there are more than one Atsara but only a master mask dancer, who is sharp and witty, dexterous and sensitive to the crowd normally qualify to be the lead Atsara. The junior Atsaras in various masks and costumes merely accompany him. The chief Atsara must know the jokes he should crack and the antics he has to play in the course of specific dances and performances. Towards the end of the festival, the Atsaras are also allowed to collect money from the people as tips and offerings, which in some cases are later shared with all dancers and performers. The Atsara character represents the traditional Bhutanese personality of being open, liberal, jovial and spontaneous. On the festival ground where people come to immerse in sacred enjoyment and forget the woes and worries of everyday life, the Atsara is a reminder for people to drop unnecessary hang-ups and taboos, inhibitions and obsessions and to unleash their free spirit of ease, joy and laughter. His character remotely reflects the liberated spirit of the Buddha, which has transcended the dualistic apprehension of likes and dislikes, pain and pleasure and such other prejudices, biases and fixations. In an age when people are becoming increasingly neurotic, complex, susceptible and stressed, the Atsara is a true teacher to help us let go of our mental and emotional constriction and seek the inner state of openness and ease.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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We have received our official letter of invitation from the Minister of Education in Bhutan and our program of school and village visits is filling up fast! How exciting!

Please consider donating. We need help to reach our minimum goal:

Expedition Background

We are excited to be partnering with National Geographic Bhutan Travel Expert Bill Jones and the Minister of Education in Bhutan who will provide invaluable support for the project. In addition to waiving significant fees, the Ministry will assist us with logistics and connections to less advantaged youth in rural areas of Bhutan. Bhutan is at a critical stage in it’s development right now, and while it is well known for being the land of “Gross National Happiness” there are signs that young people in particular are susceptible to the ever increasing demands of a changing society. We are especially excited to be serving communities in Eastern Bhutan, as very few people, and even fewer educators travel to this part of the Himalayan Kingdom due to lack of access and poor road and living conditions.

Who are we? The clowns - Hannah, Leah, and Nikolas - have a wide and varied background in social circus, hospital clowning, acrobatics, theatre, and movement. We work locally and around the world to provide relief to populations in need, partnering with various organizations such as Clowns Without Borders, Medical Clown Project, Foundation for Laughter, Clown Conservatory, and Circus UP. In each of our home towns, we teach at various non-profit circus and youth education organizations including Circus Center, Nueva School, CommonWealth Circus, Esh Circus Arts, UpLift Physical Theatre, AcroSports, and more. Most recently, Hannah and Leah traveled to Lebanon with Clowns Without Borders, performing in Palestinian and Syrian refugee camps, bringing joy and laughter.

We are benefitting from the excellent support of Bill Jones and Tshering Dorji who are generously giving us their time and sharing with us their extensive local knowledge. Bill, an acknowledged Bhutan expert, has spent more than 30 years working there in tourism and guide training. He is a National Geographic Bhutan expert and leads visits for various museums & organizations as well as arranging his own specialist tailor made tours (BillJones.Travel). Tshering has participated first hand in the growth of Bhutan’s tourism & hospitality industry over the last 20 years and manages a successful tour operation, Window to Bhutan. Bill and Tshering’s valuable contacts have opened doors for us in the realization of our project.

Our performances and workshops challenge students to use their bodies and minds creatively and playfully. We teach valuable lessons that cultivate teamwork, persistence, mindfulness, and positivity, all through heightened emotional and physical engagement, laughter, and play. Children who live with cognitive or physical handicaps, who are recovering from substance abuse, or who have experienced emotional trauma need safe spaces for creative expression and emotional release. Through creative play, group games, and physical activity, children learn to trust others, build relationships, and empathize with their peers. As clowns, we provide the space needed for this exploration. The clown gives permission to play, to laugh, and to engage fully with the world. This type of whole-hearted engagement inspires self-confident, committed, and passionate young people who will one day be leaders, artists, and change-makers in their communities.

The workshops and tours will be offered completely FREE of charge in August when students are out of school and able to attend. Although the Ministry is waiving fees for this tour, there is a per day tariff for each traveler in Bhutan. Your donation to our campaign will make it possible for this trip to happen. Each artist and guide is donating his/her/their time and talents.

If we raise $25,000, the trip can happen. If we raise $30,000, we can bring along a documentarian to video this work which will be highly beneficial for future projects!

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I'm really excited to be part of this amazing project - to bring joy and laughter through a medium that has a long history in Bhutan. It's about the unorthodoxy of teaching in an unusual way through humour. One of Bhutan's most revered saints was a monk called Drukpa Kinley who taught Buddhism in a somewhat unusual way also through humour. (He is known as the divine ‘mad monk’. The Clown Acrobatics Brigade aim to bring some unusual teaching and laughter to Bhutan this summer, travelling from East to West touching some of the remoter schools and monasteries. We aim also to bring some joy to disadvantaged youth, those who might be physically or mentally challenged. With the help of the Ministry of Education and our friends in Bhutan and you our friends we hope to make a difference with this project.

Hannah! Excellent!

And, we're so excited to be collaborating with the amazing National Geographic Travel Expert - Bill Jones! Let's bring joy and movement education where it is most impactful.

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