Their absence puts a cloud over the religious festival that’s only been around since 1999 

Tsechu: With Tsirang tshechu in the offing, a few mask dancers, who have been practising the dances since February 24, were tense when their other colleagues didn’t turn up.

Dhamal Bahadur Khapangay from Kilkhorthang gewog, who is the dodham or captain of the mask dancers, knows why the dancers have stopped coming for practice. “They’re paid very low,” he said. “So low that men prefer to work at construction sites, because they’re paid better.”

The mask dancers are paid a daily subsistence allowance (DSA) of Nu 150, which is Nu 15 less than the minimum daily wage for the national workforce.  Dhamal Bahadur Khapangay was appointed as the dodham in 1998, when the first tshechu in Tsirang started in 1999.

The DSA revised two years ago by only Nu 50 continues to be the main factor that’s deterring dancers from participating.

Another mask dancer from Tsirangtoe, Sithup Dhendup, said the DSA is not even enough for a meal. “During my month long stay in Damphu town, I had to sell my two goats to repay my hotel debts hotel last year,” he said.

Dwindling participation has become a concern for those who still come for practice.  Dhamal Bahadur said they would need at least 32 mask dancers for Rakhsha Marchan. “I don’t know how 14 of us, who come for practice, can make Tsirang tshechu successful this year,” he said.

The dancers said they heard that some southern dzongkhags have today started hiring dancers from other dzongkhags.  But in Tsirang, the team is still trying to perform the dances themselves.  Of the total 32, the team has seven lhotsham dancers.

One of the mask dancers, Sangay Choten from Tsholingkhar, said that to practise and perform a mask dance requires teamwork, and everyone should take responsibility.  He added that the government should consider increasing the DSA for mask dancers so that dzongkhags like Tsirang would not lose their experienced mask dancers.

“I’ve been performing mask dances since 2000, and it’s difficult to learn a single dance within a month long practice,” he said. “That’s why experienced dancers should be retained.”

The officiating culture officer, however, said he wasn’t aware about DSA issues with the dancers. “But I’ve called those, who didn’t come for practice, and we’re hopeful they’ll turn up by this week,” he said.

By Yeshey Dema, Tsirang