Shrewsbury’s Unitarian Church is a simple, elegant space which creates a sense of tranquillity the moment one enters its door. For three days last week it played host to a steady stream of visitors who came to witness a unique artistic spectacle.
Six Tibetan Buddist monks from a monastery in India are touring Britain on a mission for world peace; in the Church, they created a mandala, a beautiful work which is made from millions of particles of coloured sand. As they worked, there was a feeling amongst the monks and their audience of profound calm and concentration. Then, on Wednesday, accompanied by a ceremony of chanting and traditional instruments the sand was swept up and taken to the river; its assembly and destruction symbolize the transient nature of all things-including the notion of beauty.
On Thursday evening the same six monks entertained a capacity audience at Maidment Hall, Shrewsbury School, with a programme called “Sacred Music and Dance from the Land of the Snow”. The audience came to realise the importance of strict ritual in Buddist life, including welcoming an image of the Dalai Lama and a purification of the elements. The chanting emphasised the difference between eastern and western music. Most of the chants were introduced by the same monk whose voice went far, far deeper than any operatic bass could imagine!
Occasionally there were sounds which were akin to the wonderful music of the Russian Orthodox Church or Mongolian throat music but for the most part the intervals and rhythms were unfamiliar to western ears, though its beauty grew on us as the evening progressed.
The dance was spectacular; the Dance of the Skeleton Lords - two dancers as the lord and lady of the charnel ground; their costumes, energy and reaction to the percussive music was breath-taking. The instruments were unfamiliar-a high -pitched wind instrument the size of a clarinet and enormous horns with a resonant, earthy sound.
The costumes for all the dances were amazing, whether for the Dance of the Rainbow Space Travellers or the Jenbeb Cham Dance. These works are to exemplify aspects of Buddist philosophy and are given expression in chant and instrumental music.
A highly entertaining feature of the evening was a debate, a dramatization of part of the training of student monks in their quest for the meaning of existence. A fine piece of theatre, an example of brilliant communication with most of the audience unable to understand a single word! It was a valuable part of a performance which gave a profound insight into an admirable yet tragically threatened culture. The meaning and significance of all parts of the performance was enhanced sensitively by programme notes and a commentary by Maureen Phillips from Upbeat Classical Management. A wonderful end to the week and a superb new venture for the Music Trust.