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Therigatha as 💃 dance theatre

So, I was researching the Therigatha on Pinterest the other day, as one does, and came across this odd pin. It was for a page on a New Zealand online store for an album entitled Ronald Corp: Songs of the Elder Sisters. From the description:

Following on from his critically-acclaimed recording “Dhammapada”, Ronald Corp has again collaborated with writer Francis Booth for his SETTINGS OF BUDDHIST TEXTS, this time taken from the Therigatha. These words, written around 2,500 years ago, are not only some of the earliest extant poems by women, but also the only canonical work in any religion written entirely by women. The original authors were Buddhist nuns, and the texts have been newly translated by Booth for this recording. Corp’s settings are beautiful and spiritual, capturing the essence of this Eastern religion’s words in his own Western musical voice. As a Church of England priest, Corp’s choice of text is interesting, powerful and important – a simple gesture of alliance in a World torn by division.

This is beautiful music that will enchant and calm the soul.
Release date 2013

Yes, there has been an album of Therigatha poems set to music floating around the interwebs for the last seven years. And shock uppon shock, they are actually translations. No, like Translation translations! Like, actually follow the Pali real translation translations. Sad that we have to qualify that, but here we are.

[And for the record, that appears to be Mr. Francis Booth.]

Turns out that the translation itself dates from 2011. So why haven’t we heard about it? Well, it was only self published. And it’s only made it to #30,503 on Amazon’s list of Inspirational & Religious Poetry Books (unlike another “translation” which has made it all the way to #140)

His selections from the Therigatha are also published in the book Dhammapada, Songs of the Elder Sisters and Sakuntala: translations from Pali and Sanskrit

Interview with the authour

hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/hot-blogs/hastings-bookchat/interviews-with-writers-francis-booth-code-17-thrillers-and-much-much-more

from the interview:

You are also a translator. Songs of the Elder Sisters was a translation from Pali. Can you say a little about this book? Where were you when you translated it? How did it come about?
My first translations were done as libretti (see In the Grove) for a classical composer friend, Ronald Corp OBE . We started with Dhammapada, my translations of the Buddha’s words, which Ron set as an acapella choral work. Then I discovered these beautiful but unknown poems in Pali by nuns who followed the Buddha 500 years ago The poems are very personal and moving; about the experience of being a mature woman in society; Ron’s music is beautiful too.

As songs

From the liner notes:

I’m guessing the two translations he is referring to are those by CAF Rhys DAvids and KR Norman. But it’s odd that he doesn’t recognize the Davids translation as being in verse. I mean, if those aren’t in verse, I don’t know what are.

Quite generously, the text (lyrics?) can be downloaded for free.

Reviews
The texts are strongly meditative, evoking the calm and poise of those who wrote them. Corp has expertly matched this in music, and by craving for variety, greater characterisation and even drama one is no doubt missing the point. This is music that will work well late at night with the lights down. The five performers certainly seem convinced by it. (Gramophone)

Sela’s song from Ronald Corp settings of Buddhist texts “Songs of the Elder Sisters” (Stone Records 5060192780369) featuring Samuel Evans (baritone), Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano), Jill Carter (alto flute), Sarah Thurlow (clarinet) & Rachel Bolt (viola). The words are taken from the Therigatha (writings by Buddhist nuns from c. 6th century BCE), translated by Francis Booth.

Songs on YouTube with lyrics

On the composer’s website: ronaldcorp.co.uk/songs-of-the-elder-sisters/

As Modern Dance

Then, apparently, someone thought, “Why stop with singing them? Let’s dance to them as well!”

‘Songs of the Elder Sisters’ are a collection of meditative poems written in the wisdom of old age, by the nuns who lived and travelled with the Buddha 2,500 years ago and are the earliest known female canonical writings. The ballet follows the story of an older nun, Ambapali, and her three protégées Sela, Khema and Uppalavana. Ambapali passes on her knowledge to the younger nuns before they embark on a pilgrimage. They are able to use the wisdom they’ve learnt from Ambapali to ward off Mara the Tempter whom they encounter on their journey. The poems have been translated by Francis Booth from the Buddhist Pali canon, and set by Ronald Corp for singers, flute, viola and clarinet.

Choreography: Paul Chantry Lighting design: Owain Davies

Chantry Dance Company perform in Ronald Corp’s and Francis Booth’s ‘Songs of the Elder Sisters’ at The Village Underground, January 2013.

Choreography: Paul Chantry
Composer: Ronald Corp OBE
Translator: Francis Booth
Dancers:
Ambapali - Gail Gordon
Sela - Emma Cole
Khema - Chandelle Allen
Uppalavana - Rae Piper

And Dhammapada too…

Seems that the Dhammapada was where the translator got his start, as so many do.

From Stone Records. The lyrics can be downloaded here.

I do also want to mention, for those not familiar with Sinhala Buddhist culture, that the idea that these verses are “songs” is quite odd. In Sri Lanka, at least, there is a very clear delineation between Pali verses (gatha), poetry that is recited (kavi) and songs (geetha). So the idea that these are songs, as sung on the recordings here, is quite strange to me.

[BTW, if you are a pinner interested in the Therigatha, Therigatha.org’s page is made for you.]

Oh, and if any of you have known about all this for the last seven years and have been keeping it to yourself… Why?

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Good, structured English verse; something that unfortunately a person must nowadays put to music to be taken seriously. This to me is actual English poetry; what passes for it in literary pubs is mostly prose with arbitrary line breaks inserted. At least it still has a place to hide in music. Believe it or not, that other translation is par for the course in modern English poetry, at least here in the States.

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So how do you rate Francis Booth’s translations? This is what he says of his own work:

These words were written during the Buddha’s lifetime about 2,500 years ago by women who had renounced home life and society and joined the group of nuns founded by the Buddha.

These poignant songs are about loss of beauty, wealth and family, balanced by the greater gains of peace and wisdom through enlightenment in old age. All the songs are ascribed to particular
women, whose names we know. They speak as individuals, not as wives, mothers and daughters. Although Buddhist in intent, the songs are highly personal rather than pious and formal and are full of character and personality.

They were passed down orally through chanting for 600 years before being written down and are among the earliest extant poems written by women. They also form the only canonical work in any religion written entirely by women.

There have only been two previous translations of the works into English, neither of which was in verse. This is a translation from the Pali originals of a small selection from the 73 works in the Therigatha; no attempt has been made to capture the rhythm of the Pali language in which they were composed, just the character of the women’s voices.

© 2013 Francis Booth

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Here is Subhā Therī (14.1 Subhā Jīvakambavanikā Therī 366-399)

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Just found this. Quite different than the above work.

Our Midnight Song | Ep 4 | Therigatha - Voices of the First Buddhist Women
A series celebrating womxn artists, their thought, works and diversity.
This project is part of the 25 x 25 Initiative by India Foundation for the Arts, supported by lead donor Kshirsagar-Apte Foundation, and philanthropy partners Titan Company Limited, and Priya Paul and Sethu Vaidyanathan.

Just published. The link will take you right to the singing. Here is the pali so you can follow along:

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Interesting. Thanks for sharing. I was recently talking with my girlfriend, who studies yoga philosophy with an Indian guru, and she told me that she was learning about kirtan. She assumed Buddhism has kirtan, too. I had to look up what it was, since I wasn’t familiar with the word, but had to tell her that Buddhism doesn’t have the same tradition. I guess because monastics were not allowed to perform music, Buddhism didn’t really develop religious songs (as opposed to chanting suttas or mantras).

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Ah, but we do. Sort of. In Sri Lanka there is a rich tradition of Buddhist Kavi, or poems. To a westerner these would sound like songs. But to Sinhala people, this is just the way that poetry is read. There are both Buddhist and non-Buddhist kavis. In fact, if you are in Sri Lanka much of what you hear being played on the temple loud speakers is Kavi, in addition to sutta/paritta. There are even special kavi you chant when traveling on pilgrimage. But there are also kavi associated with domestic tasks like rice threshing. For the Sinhala listener they would sound very distinct, although to me they all sound similar. But the Buddhist ones would not usually have instrumental accompaniment when recited by monks live, although I’m not 100% sure about that one.

Here is a religious kavi worshiping Arahant Mahinda. When done live, it would be a call and response with the lay people. It’s written in the literary form of Sinhala:

And all that is separate from budu gī, Buddhist songs. I think they are also called bakti gī. These songs are always sung by lay people, although they may be written by monks.

They are also frequently performed by kids, especially at vesak:

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Sri Lanka is one of the countries I never managed to visit during my 10 years in Asia. I think it’s going to be the first one I visit after I’m vaccinated. Even though it’s possible to visit Sri Lanka now as a tourist, I won’t feel safe doing it until I’ve been vaccinated.

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In 2018 the Thais made a likay-cum-Bollywood production of the life of Ambapāli, starring likay actress Ann Mitchai and interspersed with readings from the Therīgāthā and Therīapādāna.

Here’s the trailer…

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This is so cool!

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