ON THE SCENE: Vision of Tibet supporting artists near and far
Vision of Tibet on Main Street is much more than a gift shop filled with remarkable articles for sale, ranging from Tibetan singing bowls to handcrafted, one-of-a-kind artifacts and clothing.
On one hand, it’s a look into a rich Buddhist culture based in northern India. On the other hand, it supports the artistic output of three professional artists: a musician-singer, a photographer and an anthropologist who explores human migration through dance. Furthermore, sales support a network of craftspeople based in the Himalayan foothills.
When he was one month old, Sonam Zoksang’s parents fled communist China’s takeover of Tibet; they were part of the first wave of Tibetans that followed the 14th Dali Lama south toward India. Doing so, they took on the brutal challenge of crossing through the high passes of the Himalayan Range carrying what possessions they could on their backs. Many who tried died en route. About 80,000 made the initial crossing, with many now living in Dharamshala and Bylakuppe, India, as well as in Bhutan and Nepal.
Educated in refugee schools, Sonam is a self-taught photographer who first came to the United States in 1985 at the invitation of an American he met while studying Buddhism in Nepal.
“Photography is my passion,” said Sonam. “I never studied photography. When I came to the United States, I spent all my free time at bookstores like Barnes & Nobel studying photography books, and when I could earn some money, I subscribed to National Geographic Magazine. My first camera was a small automatic, and I started taking pictures in Central Park and at small gatherings of people.”
He started working for a woman who sold Tibetan jewelry and costumes in her Fifth Avenue store to support himself. From there, he worked at Visions of Tibet, a gift shop on Sullivan Street in the Village, where the owner taught him all aspects of the business. Sonam readily admits that business skills didn’t come to him naturally like many artists. As the owner had to return to India, Sonam eventually took over the shop and, when married, moved it to Kingston as his wife wanted to have their children educated in a Waldorf School and live in a more rural area.
At the same time, Sonam was developing a reputation as a skilled photographer. In the mid-1980s, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to New York, he was invited to serve as one of his bodyguards, a high honor that he had a couple of times in his late teens when in India.
“Then, getting close to His Holiness was such a big thing,” said Sonam. “That was such an honor. I was again selected when he came to the United States, but the State Department took over providing security. But, when they learned I was a photographer, the Office of Tibet asked me to photograph His Holiness during his visit.
“My whole purpose of business is not about trying to sell things; I try to create an ambiance. If people like it, they will purchase. If not, they won’t. I want people coming into the store to feel good. That’s my whole business philosophy, and it starts back in India and Nepal; the artisans are sharing their gifts and talent. I love Lake Placid. It reminds me of the landscape where I grew up, the hills, and the water. Just driving up was so emotional. I wanted to be here whether I had a store or not.”
Techung Sharzur and his partner, Sisa Salgado, manage Visions of Tibet, with Sonam taking over when they are off performing. Techung and Sisa are both gifted artists. Techung, also known as Tashi, is a singer and musician of traditional Tibetan music who has performed worldwide, including at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall, with musicians such as Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, and for the Dalai Lama. Locally, he and Sisa have performed in Keene, Lake Placid and Saranac Lake and have given master classes at regional colleges such as St. Lawrence University.
Like Sonam, Techung’s parents followed the Dalai Lama to India in 1959. Not knowing anything about what they taught, Techung’s mother enrolled him in the Tibetan School of the Performing Arts. His family had no history in the arts as far as he knows, but as he was in a performing arts school, he had to take classes in singing, dancing, theatre, music making and the technical aspects.
“It wasn’t like I had talent or a desire to become an artist; I became an artist by default,” said Techung. “I was one of the youngest in the school. The school was established to help keep the Tibetan people hopeful, cheerful and connected to their history as they had lost their country, were displaced, and many had lost hope, were desperate, and all that. The school’s other purpose was to educate people in India and Westerners about our culture, that we had a rich cultural tradition.”
Techung said they never had a performing arts school in Tibet, as singing, dancing and making music were a part of everyday life. When he came to the U.S., all that artistic training went from something he had to learn to who he was; his calling and a mission to spread awareness of his heritage. In the U.S., his artistic journey began in California. In 1989, he co-founded the San Francisco-based Chaksampa Tibetan Dance & Opera Company and, in time, worked for the Milarepa Fund in San Francisco, where he organized the Tibetan Freedom Concert.
Sisa met Techung in India. At the time, he was there performing, and she was learning classical Indian dance as part of her desire to explore human migration through the traditional arts. She is an anthropologist and a traditional artist specializing in dance.
“In my family, we do not have many artists,” said Sisa, who grew up in Quinto, Ecuador. “But one of my uncles, a writer and traveler, used to send me postcards from the many places he visited. He inspired me to attend an art school at university, and then I decided to major in anthropology and journalism. But I always loved dance and music and kept doing that after school. When working on my thesis, I decided to bring these twin loves together.”
Sisa developed a research project called the Dance Road that explores human migration through traditional arts, dance and music. As part of researching migratory routes in India and Asia, she went to southern India to study and become highly proficient in Bharatanatyam, a 2,000-year-old dance of Tamil Nadu. From there, Sisa’s research took her to the Himalayas, where she connected with the Tibetan community and met Techung. In Lake Placid, she continues to pursue her research, having recently returned from exploring migrations in northern Africa, which included collaborations with Techung.
Thus, in many respects, entering Vision of Tibet is stepping into a cultural bazaar representing an array of constantly unfolding experiences. Examples of Sonam, Sisa and Techung’s artistic work can be found on major platforms, with Techung’s music also on iTunes.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)