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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tibetan fashion designer finds balance between cultural tradition and modernity

November 6, 2017

By Ananth Krishnan

India Today, November 2, 2013 - Earlier this year, Aj Namo became the first Tibetan fashion designer selected for China Fashion Week, the country's biggest fashion show. But when the organisers offered her their models, including some of China's most well known faces, she declined. Instead, she selected young Tibetans from her hometown of Kangba, a small grassland township in western Sichuan, near Tibet. She also eschewed the customary grand fashion show opening, with bright lights and loud music that Chinese prefer. Instead, her older sister Kelsang sang a Buddhist prayer.

"I asked her to sing because Tibetan culture has the power to make people feel quiet and calm," says the 32-year-old. Her debut made such an impact that she was invited back, on November 5, for her second show at China Fashion Week. Heads turn when Aj Namo enters a trendy Beijing cafe near her studio, if only because Tibetan faces aren't all that common in the upmarket dining establishments of the Chinese capital. Aj Namo moved to Beijing 13 years ago, the first of her family-who have been herders for many generations-to leave the Tibetan plateau. The only Tibetans there were students on government scholarships, or displaced herders who make a living selling handicrafts on city streets. There are only around 6 million Tibetans in China, accounting for less than half a per cent of the 1.4 billion population (of which more than 90 per cent are Han Chinese).

Aj Namo headed to Beijing without a plan. "The only clear idea I had was I needed to get out of my hometown," she said. "I had no idea where to go or what to do." She was always fond of music, and began singing Tibetan songs for small entertainment shows. Aj Namo quickly made a name for herself as a singer, appearing on television at a time when Chinese audiences were beginning to pay attention to arts and culture of ethnic minority groups. Now, as many Tibetans in China worry about the dilution of their culture and sense of identity, she also sees a greater yearning among young Tibetans to rediscover their roots.

"Young Tibetan people have realised that many parts of their culture are missing, and they are trying to rediscover them," she says. "More and more, I see younger Tibetans inheriting their traditions and culture, and having the sense to combine this with modernity." Today, as an established singer and a fast-rising fashion designer, Aj Namo sees herself as an ambassador for Tibetan culture in Beijing. She wants to change pervasive Chinese perceptions of Tibetans and their culture as "backward", a result of state propaganda that emphasises how the Communist Party brought "civilisation" to the country's 55 "backward" minority groups.

"Tibetan culture actually has a long history and is advanced," she reflects, although she is optimistic about the increasing interest among young Chinese for all things Tibetan, evident in the growing number of young Han Chinese travelling to Tibet "to find themselves", and her selection for the fashion week. "Tibetan culture is becoming a cool trend here, so many people are wearing Buddha beads now, even if maybe they have no knowledge of Buddhism. But it's a beginning," she says. Her next step is to expand her studio in Beijing so that it becomes a platform to spread Tibetan culture, for instance, by bringing in musicians and holding cultural events. She then wants to go global, and hopes to showcase her Tibetan designs in Paris and New York. She also hopes to one day reach out to the Tibetan community in India.

Even as Tibet struggles with the problem of preserving its culture and identity amid an onslaught from the Chinese state, Aj Namo believes younger Tibetans are finding ways to balance tradition and modernity. "Outwardly, it might seem we are just wearing Tibetan clothes, or doing thangka [Tibetan paintings] to be fashionable," she says. "But we also still follow strict rules, reciting scriptures and praying for our lamas every day. It's not that young Tibetans are just fashion lovers. We also know that our tradition brings us great strength."

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