Preserving Ladakh’s culture through film

Erik Koto filming for 'The Song Collector' in Ladakh. (Courtesy photo by Erik Koto.)
Erik Koto filming for ‘The Song Collector’ in Ladakh. (Courtesy photo by Erik Koto.)

Erik Koto devotes over five years of his life to filming and directing ‘The Song Collector’, a story inspired to rebuild a culture and speak through generations.

“It’s a documentary currently in production, and post production actually. About a Himalayan folk singer and activist [starting] a movement to preserve the culture of Ladakh in the face of war and globalization,” says Koto.

Situated on the edge of the Tibetan plateau with a sparse population of mainly Tibetan descendants, Ladakh maintained a strong presence as a Buddhist kingdom. But, after being annexed by India, Ladakh was set on a course with modernization that has put its Buddhist culture and history on a dying path.

Morup Namgyal is the activist at the center of Koto’s film dedicated to preserving Ladakh’s folk culture and way of life. He’s walked hundreds of miles collecting and documenting songs preserving the culture and history of Ladakh. The songs collected are a window to many of the aspects defining Ladakh’s past.

Many of the songs tell important stories about historic life detailing various elements in Ladakh like the landscape, animals, clothing, etc. Many of these elements are still important to Ladakhis as they balance developing Ladakh and clinging to cultural and demographic individuality.

Some of the songs performed usually involve ceremonial music, since it has more stage appeal to it. “Daman Surna” is the more ceremonial music, which according to Koto is less approachable to Western ears than other types, but carries the history and folk tales of Ladakh. Another type of Ladakhi music is the “Chang Tang” music, which has more familiar sounding rhythms and melodies to a Western ear.

I asked Koto about the development of his experience with the songs from when he first heard them. He pauses for a moment to reflect on the question. “My first experience… some of it can be rather grading and difficult. Ceremonial music is loud and not particularly soothing, but the lyrics have a very important story. That only revealed itself later.” Although, he did admit that it grew on him over time. “It won’t be something I run out and buy a CD of,” chuckles Koto. “But I can listen to the songs now and really appreciate it [for the meaning of the lyrics].”

However, Namgyal knew the preservation of his culture went beyond recording songs. So, he co-founded The Lamdon Society that includes various artists, activists, and scholars pioneering the movement to preserve Ladakh’s culture.

An important milestone in Namgyal’s legacy was starting The Lamdon School, since it is a pioneer version of a curriculum steered toward rebuilding Ladakhi language and folk traditions. The songs he’s collected are taught at the school to future generations of Ladakhis.

Koto further explained the significance of Namgyal’s mission and how the songs are impactful to Ladakh as a whole.

“Folk singing is a very generational and hereditary pursuit.” It’s a tradition passed from one generation to the next. Namgyal’s family is an important example of this. Even his grandson is now attending his school and learning about his homeland and culture through the songs’ lyrics and language. According to Koto, with more than 2000 students, on 8 campuses, and a graduation rate of 100 students per year the school has been an important part of society. “And they all graduate with a very strong sense of Ladakhi culture and community,” says Koto.

The bigger impact Namgyal made is finding solutions to the larger issue facing many secluded regions, which is to balance the changes of modernization while holding on to cultural individuality.

“You know, in a way, it takes a small story to tell a big story. And, if we do it right there’s that important theme about a universal quality of life,” says Gretchen Burger, Koto’s editor. “One of the things Morup talks about is the break down in the cultural fabric. [About] what was there before modernization. The cultural structure of people coming together, it creates a collaboration where people are dependent on each other. He talks about people now, and how they’re dizzy getting material things, [and] more stressed out. It’s an interesting habit of reflecting back.”

Burger mentions that there are people, like her, who struggle to live in the modern world that might benefit from watching. “How do you maintain yourself within this consumer culture?,” she asks thoughtfully.

Namgyal mentions in a TEDx Leh talk that he knows he can’t stop the changes taking place and those to come, but wants to hold on to what is important from the past too.

Coming from Colorado to Washington, working in software development, and raising a family, I became curious about how Ladakh, Namgyal and this film fit into Koto’s life. A place, he jokes, probably known by 1 out of every 50,000 Americans.

Erik Koto standing outside a buddhist temple in Fremont. (Photo by Danish Mehboob)
Erik Koto standing outside a buddhist temple in Fremont, WA. (Photo by Danish Mehboob)

“I traveled throughout the Himalayas. I have a personal connection and love for the place. I’ve always visited as a tourist,” explains Koto. He looked pensive as he reflected on memories about his long time love for the mountains. “As I got to know people better and develop deeper relationships, going [there] meant more to me,” he says.

He recalls offering to make a short fundraiser film for The Lamdon School, which introduced him to Namgyal. This introduction and fundraiser film eventually snowballed into ‘The Song Collector’.

“He’s [Namgyal] an amazing artist and a selfless social activist. I found him to be a magnetic personality. He’s someone who’s very comfortable on camera. That’s when I realized this is someone who could convey his story and could be a character on film.”

Erik Koto interviews Morup Namgyal for 'The Song Collector' documentary in Ladakh. (Courtesy photo provided by Erik Koto.)
Erik Koto interviewing Morup Namgyal for ‘The Song Collector’ documentary in Ladakh. (Courtesy photo provided by Erik Koto.)

“What Morup is doing is inspirational and a great tale, from the grassroots they [Ladakhis] can make a difference in their region and culture. It was 6 to 7 people who were passionate and worked really hard to make it happen. I felt that that should be shared, and it has a happy ending.”

When I asked Koto about how he found his experience making his first feature length film. He looks at me with ease and says that he finds this film has already been a huge success for him. Sometimes, “it’s like ‘Oh man!’ Did I really put six years of my life into this?’,” says a surprised Koto. “One of the things I’m most proud of is that I didn’t hurry the film to get done. The first year I completed a thirty-minute version. But, watching it two months [later] I looked back and thought this is a really great story that has been poorly told. There have been two or three experiences like that.”
“What makes it special is that I’ve already gotten what I’ve needed. I’ve got to indulge very deeply in a world and culture I’m fascinated by and I’ve made a lifelong friend in Morup and his family. It’s an important relationship in my life,” says Koto fondly. “That being said, I do want as many people to see it as possible.”

Koto estimates that he is two-thirds through his final cut of the film and should have something to show to select public towards the end of this year.

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