Tseshu Lhamo, 68, suns herself on the verandah of her modest, traditional house with gaily painted beams and woodwork. Nicknamed the 'Nightingale of Ladakh' by the townspeople, this Sangeet Natak Akademi (SNA) awardee has taken Ladakh's folk music to other parts of India and to Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea and Mongolia.
As in the case of so many other artistes in India, fame has not brought fortune to Lhamo. Even small children can direct visitors to her house, set amid willow trees and fields of cabbages and barley in the village of Susodh, on the outskirts of Leh. Today, all she yearns for is the opportunity to keep performing. "I can still sing as well as ever. I used to be so much in demand. But then the invitations to sing on the radio and give live performances just dried up. I hardly get work nowadays."
Wearing a dark grey goncha (traditional Ladakhi dress), Lhamo talks happily about her days as a child artiste. She was born in Spiti Valley into a family of wandering minstrels. "I used to accompany my parents as they went
from village to village. In each village, the wealthy families would invite them to perform. My father, Tsering Morup, also played the shehnai (classical music instrument). I learned to sing by being with them."
In time, Lhamo's talent became widely known. And recognition and awards came her way. In the sitting room, furnished with Ladakhi rugs and tea tables with swirling woodwork and painted motifs, are stored Lhamo's most
prized awards and mementos. The SNA award is displayed here. It was awarded in 1985 and the citation states that "her music is part of the global body of work selected by the French government's National Council for Scientific Research, Paris, in 1976".
Her 26-year-old daughter, Kunzos Dolma, says: "When my mother got married, it was to a shehnai player and my parents also toured the villages and towns to earn a living. We have photographs of those times." In the
household prayer room, a row of large, glass-framed black and white photographs hang opposite the altar. The young Lhamo stares out of them - a countrywoman with striking features.
There is a delightful family portrait - the young couple standing beside a pony carrying their possessions. Perched atop the goods on the pony's back is a young child with apple-red cheeks: "That's me, my parents' only
child," laughs Dolma, who has learnt singing from her mother.
Lhamo's two brothers (one died) were also musically inclined. "My brother, Sonam Lakdang, and my nephews still accompany me on the shehnai and the daman whenever I sing," says Lhamo. Daman is a folk music instrument consisting of a two-drum set, one small and the other large. She herself uses the daff, a tambourine-like instrument, for her performances.
One can still spot the bright expression of her youth in her kindly, lined face. After 18 years of a wandering lifestyle, she says, her husband and she managed to save some money to start building this house. "It was
started 30 years ago and is still being built, bit by bit," she says. Her husband is dead. She says they spent 20 happy years together. "He was very happy with my fame," she recalls. "I was awarded a gold medal by the state
government. The Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA) also gave me an award. I served as an LBA councillor for five years."
Yet, officialdom appears to have forgotten her today. "In 2003, the yearly pension of Rs 3,000 (1US$=Rs 46) which she used to get has stopped coming. I made one or two enquiries, then I gave up," says her daughter. "The one person who helped us a great deal was the former Governor, Girish Chandra Saxena. He got me a job in the District Commissioner's office," she says.
Lhoma says Saxena heard her sing at a function and when they met, he gave her a khata. In Buddhist society, a khata is a scarf that is draped over someone as a gesture of regard.
But in 2001, Lhamo suffered a paralytic attack in her lower limbs and has not been able to walk since then. "We took her to hospital and spoke to the doctors. They told us we would have to go in for a long-drawn treatment. We simply don't have the money," says Dolma.
A year later, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) Academy of Arts, Culture and Language announced that it would pay Rs 60,000 towards the cost of treatment. However, the family says it has yet to receive any money. Again,
in August 2003, when the Academy honoured her with a lifetime achievement award, Lhamo's family became hopeful. "Every time, we are promised a nurse and medicines. But no one comes to see her condition and help out," laments Dolma.
"If I could get work like earlier, I could earn the money for the treatment," says Lhamo wistfully. Her main income used to be from All India Radio but now she gets invited "about once in three years".
Royalty from cassettes could have been a source of income. In a lifetime of singing, she estimates, she has recorded about 500 songs. The cassettes were produced and marketed by a private company and still sell in and around Leh.
But, as Stanzin Lotus, a radio station staffer in Leh, explains, "Copyright and royalty laws are not enforced in Ladakh. The singers and performers are simple rural people and they are generally unaware of these things. Now, awareness is growing slowly and recently some artistes formed a group to fight this injustice."
Despite the odds she faces in her sunset years, Lhamo still possesses extraordinary spirit. Asked whether she has passed on her musical heritage to the next generation, she says she has had 13 students but her daughter
has been her best follower. Is her daughter more talented than her? "I am the most talented in this family," thumping her chest and giving a disarming, toothless smile.