I first travelled to Ladakh in 2001 when I cycled across the infamous Aksai Chin plateau in Western China. This high altitude plateau had been a part of Ladakh for centuries until it was invaded and occupied by the Chinese during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. I was cycling across the Aksai Chin in order to reach the sacred Mount Kailash which was to be the highlight of my 2,000 mile bicycle voyage.
Mount Kailash was as beautiful as I had imagined – however, it was the Aksai Chin of Ladakh that left the strongest impression on me.
I left knowing that I had to explore the rest of Ladakh one day.
(The trailer of The Song Collector can be seen here):
How I Was Led to the Man Called Morup Namgyal
I had the opportunity to return to Ladakh in 2008, when I travelled to Leh for a 10-day volunteer project at the non-profit Lamdon School. When I arrived, I was immediately struck by the school’s mission to preserve the traditional Ladakhi language and culture. Here was a thriving organisation, doing essential work, in one of the most remote and undeveloped regions in India.
As a filmmaker who’s always on the lookout for a good story, I had to know how this came to be.
My inquires eventually led me to Morup Namgyal – a 64-year old folk singer and social activist hailing from a small village in rural Ladakh. Morup was a gentle and soft spoken man; however, as he began to explain his background to me, I realised I was speaking with a living legend.
In the late 1960s – as Ladakh was experiencing its first wave of modernisation – Morup had sparked the pioneering social movement for the preservation of Ladakhi culture.
Along with a small band of folk artists, Morup travelled throughout Ladakh staging song and dance performances that aimed to inspire pride in the Ladakhi identity. This social movement eventually led to the creation of the Lamdon School where I was now volunteering.
Started in 1974, the Lamdon School had grown from 7 students (and Morup as the only teacher) to over 1,900 students and 9 branch schools! But that wasn’t all. In addition to founding the Lamdon School, Morup had also archived over 1,300 of Ladakh’s dying folk songs, hosted a folk music programme on All India Radio for 30 years, and in 2002 he was awarded Padma Shri.
I was hooked. This was a story I had to tell.
The Story of How I Filmed in Leh, Ladakh
I returned to Ladakh the following year and began filming a feature length documentary on Morup’s life as a folk singer and social activist.
It was to become a 6 year labour of love, encompassing 8 trips to Ladakh and all the ups and downs of an independent film project.
Filming in Leh, Ladakh often felt more like shooting a mountaineering film than one set in a city of 50,000 people. I began to think of each trip as a mini expedition, and took to bringing 2 or 3 of everything… if something failed in Ladakh, there was no chance of getting a replacement!
Over the years of shooting I encountered blizzards, floods, and dust storms. There were –30 degree winter nights and summer suns so intense that they overheated camera sensors. Power outages were frequent, cell networks would be down for days, and electricity surges would burn out power adaptors.
Did I love it? Of course I did. Ladakh is even more spectacular than it looks in all the glossy magazine spreads.
The Winning of the Indomitable Spirit Award
After fours years of filming we began editing and crafting the film that would ultimately become The Song Collector. As we constructed the story it was essential that the film evoke the beautiful traditional culture of Ladakh in contrast to the looming threat of cultural homogenisation and loss of tradition.
However, I was determined that this was not going to be just another film about globalisation destroying traditional culture.
At it’s heart, Morup’s story is a celebration of the power of grass roots activism and the power we all have to change our world for the better. It is a reminder to us all that determination is our most potent resource.
Morup’s perseverance was also an inspiration to me as we slogged through more than 2 years of editing the film. It was a long and at times frustrating process, but I never doubted we’d get through it. And in the end, the long hours were a distant memory once we learned The Song Collector would have its world premiere at Mountainfilm Telluride, a long-running festival in Colorado USA dedicated to “celebrating the indomitable human spirit”.
The film played to sold out crowds. By the end of the festival the film had garnered enough attention to take home the Indomitable Spirit Award, given annually to the film that best represents the vision to “dream big and dare to fail”.
I couldn’t think of a more fitting tribute for a film that celebrates Morup’s life work.
For trailer, upcoming screenings and to learn more about The Song Collector please visit: https://www.facebook.com/thesongcollector
(Seattle-based filmmaker Erik Koto first discovered a love for the Himalayas on a 2,000-mile bike tour across Pakistan and Western Tibet in 2001. Erik lives and works in Seattle, WA where he is active in the local documentary community including serving two terms as a board member of 911 Media Arts, a non-profit organisation dedicated to filmmaking and video art.)