Folk Art PA

Master: Kamal Upreti

Artist: Khem Rizal
Art Form: Baalan (Hindu Traditional Arts)

Both Kamal Upreti and Khem Rizal are refugees from Bhutan now living in Erie, Pennsylvania where about 5,000 refugees from Bhutan now live. When ethnic Nepalis were evicted from Bhutan and forced to live in Nepalese refugee camps they not only lost their homes but were threatened with the loss of their culture: "Our culture was almost lost. Where we lived in the refugee camp [in Nepal], it was very hard to keep our culture. Now I think that I can really preserve our culture. I have a lot of hope now." The Pennsylvania Council of the Arts Apprenticeship in Folk and Traditional Arts has allowed Upreti and Rizal to reconnect and continue the Hindu tradition of Balaan. Balaan is a men's dance that is the central aspect of a Hindu house blessing ritual. Families choose to host a Baalan ritual at their home to bring them fertility, good health, or financial prosperity. The ritual takes 12 hours and is typically completed over night. The Baalan dance is also accompanied by Kirtan, Hindu devotional chants with drums and harmonium. Upreti describes the ritual: "We sing and dance continuously. The words we sing are a prayer and the dance is a prayer with our bodies." The major goal was for Khem to learn the prayers, the steps, and songs and be able to perform Baalan by himself. They opened the lessons to outsiders in order to get other men in their community involved and three other men attended.

Khem Rizal began learning the Baalan ritual from Upreti when he was nine years old living in a refugee camp in Nepal. He liked to watch the men dance and sing and when Upreti noticed Rizal's interests he started teaching him. This apprenticeship has allowed Rizal to finish that training and learn the Balaan ritual to a greater extent: "Before the grant I could barely do anything. I learned Baalan and now I can do almost the entire ritual on my own. I know the songs, the prayers, and the dances. I started knowing just a little and now I am a leader." This apprenticeship helped Rizal feel connected to his culture and religion here in the United States: "I knew how to express my culture in Bhutan, I knew how to express my culture in Nepal in the camps, and this grant helped me understand how to express my culture in this new country."

Kamal Upreti has practiced Balaan since he was 14 years old, when his father and other men in the community taught him the ritual. Upreti feels strongly about preserving this Hindu tradition: "People are not powerful, but this prayer is powerful. It can fulfill our desires. It is the oldest traditional performance, and we need to keep it." This apprenticeship has helped cement Upreti's status not only as a practitioner of Baalan, but also as a teacher and leader: "Now the worldwide Bhutanese-Nepali community sees me as a leader and now I get invitations to present Baalan in many places."