Ap Dopay

Ap Dopey’s many contributions to Bhutanese Zhungdra music, traditional painting and culture

Bhutan lost a living legend and a national treasure, in the form Ap Dopay, the last great master of traditional Bhutanese music known as Zhungdra. He died on 28 September 2022 at the age of 89 after a bout of illness.

Below is a feature written on him, 11 years ago when he was 78-years-old, by author and historian Tashi Tshering.

Ap Dopay’s name is synonymous with Zhungdra, which has a long melody that distinguishes it from Rigsar, the modern Bhutanese songs.

His first musical instrument was the flute, which he picked up for the first time when he was nine years old. Ever since, he has carried it with him all the time. As a young monk, he stashed it in his red robes, and later on in his life he carried it in the back of his gho.

Like most boys of his generation, Ap Dopay’s parents enrolled him as a monk in the Dzong, and in the great stone courtyards of the Thimphu Dzong, Ap Dopay would listen to older flutists then practice the tunes during prayer recess.

At the age of 18, his teachers recognized his musical skills and included him in the music team that played for the Royal Army band under Aku Tongmi.

When I met Aku Tongmi, he had just celebrated his 99th birthday in bed. He feebly confirmed, “Ap Dopay was my student and he did play for the army band.” He also pointed out that: “Ap Dopay became famous because of his Dramnyen.”

The Dramnyen is a lute with 7 strings and is one the three main Bhutanese folk music instruments, and in many respects it is similar to the Tibetans. Both are made of woods such as sandal, cypress and walnut, but the instruments in Bhutan have an extra string.

At the age of 23, Ap Dopay left the clergy to became a farmer in his village, Talo, located in Punakha Dzongkhag (state).

Like most Bhutanese of his generation, Ap Dopay keeps himself active and hates idling. As a farmer, he invested his time wisely learning to play the Dramnyen from a village elder Tsham Pem Dorji. During the early twentieth-century, Tsham Penjor not only developed a reputation for his embroidery skills but also distinguished himself as a great singer and master of the Dramnyen.

Ap Dopay also proved himself to be multi-talented. In 1960, during the renovation of the Thimphu Dzong, Ap Dopay was the master painter. Under the supervision of Her Majesty Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck, the Queen of the Third King, he also supervised the paintings of the Paro Dumrinay and Satsam palace. He served as a painter for 25 years of his life before retiring to pursue religion.

During his painting career, Her Majesty Ashi Kesang often called him to the palace to entertain visiting dignitaries. Over the years, Ap Dopay has not only performed for the Kings and Queens but also for guests such as the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi who also later became prime minister. In addition, Ap Dopay’s music provides the background music for the documentary of Nehru’s historical 1958 visit to Bhutan.

Ap Dopay was not only a genius with his Dramnyen but also with his flute. He mastered the art of breathing called Bongko so he could play the flute continuously for a long time without having to stop to breathe.

Musicians visiting from the West respected Ap Dopay for his ability to play the flute without having to stop to breathe.

Ap Dopay is a musician of international standard, according to his most famous student, Bhutan’s only Ethnomusicologist, Jigme Drukpa, who considers Ap Dopay to be his root guru. But Ap Dopay has never traveled further beyond Bhutan’s borders than India and Nepal.

In 1999 the Fourth King awarded him the Druk Thuksay medal for his efforts to preserve traditional music in Bhutan. He says, “When, the King awarded the medal, it was the happiest moment in my life.” He hoped his medal will inspire other musicians to excel and dedicate themselves to traditional music.

He emphasizes that Zhungdras are soul stirring, since they contain history, and always have religious and social messages. Just like the singer who is totally immersed in the song, the listeners are also transported with the song. The traditional songs have been known to inspire people and also change their lives.

Ap Dopay does not have one particular favorite song. He said, “I play and sing whatever comes to my mind.”

As long as his memory could take him back Ap Dopay remembers getting up at the crack of dawn to pray every morning, like his ancestors, to light incense, fill seven silver bowls with water then sits down cross-legged in the corner of his altar room to chant his prayers in praise of Lham Yangchen.

Lham Yangchem is a goddess who is worshipped for knowledge. All goddesses carry an object with them, and Yangchem’s object is a Dramnyen which she uses to impart knowledge to all sentient beings.

Ap Dopay is as comfortable with children as he is with adults. He has a soft corner for the disabled, and helps in the Draktsho School for disabled where he teaches the children to paint.

Ap Dopay is concerned about the future of Bhutanese music. Stroking his silver goatee, he said to me, “Just as it is my greatest wish to pass on my knowledge of Zhungdra to the younger generation, it is also my greatest worry that there are not enough enthusiastic young singers who are keen to learn zhungdra. Even out of a hundred elders, only two or so will know Zhungdra.” There is lot of work to be done.

He even suggested financial incentives to attract the younger people to learn this dying art. His greatest hope for the preservation of traditional songs is his adopted son and student Jigme Drukpa. Ap Dopay himself has also taught many people. Amongst his students are the Fourth King and one of his sisters who learnt to play the flute and Dramnyen respectively.

Ap Dopay was furious when he learnt that the Royal Academy of Performing Arts (RAPA) had removed the third string from the Dramnyen. He was even more upset when he learnt that the Yangchen (Dulcimer) was being given more importance. He told me that he had to explain to the teachers in RAPA located in the nation’s capital that the Yangchen is not an indigenous Bhutanese music instrument and had its origin in China. He made it clear that the Bhutanese instruments are the Dramnyen, Chewang and the Lingm.

Ap Dopay keeps his Dramnyen in the altar room next to an appliqué of Lham Yangchen. The wood on the neck of the Dramnyen has worn out from constant fingering. This musical instrument is the family treasure and Ap Dopay told me with a smile on his face, “I will not sell the Dramnyen even for a princely sum.”

Ap Dopay’s Dramnyen has already been passed down six generations.

As he becomes older, Ap Dopay is becoming more concerned about the religious aspect of traditional Bhutanese music, particularly the chanting of the Mani Yangda, a simple hymn with simple words, Om Mani Pema Hung, which were chanted by the Goddess Chenrizig, and are sung during cremation ceremonies.

Ap Dopay is very concerned about the diminishing interest in the mani. He explained to me the significance of the mani, which was “to remind the relatives of the fragility of life. It is also an occasion to celebrate the life of the dead and remember the ones left behind.”

Ap Dopay said that people in Thimphu lead their lives as if they are immortals. The Bhutanese attend cremations many times in a year, yet it is difficult to find one person in a thousand who knows the mani. It would be sad to see this precious skill die.

He remembers hearing of a special embroidery method called tsem ngi (“two embroidery”), which is unique as it uses two needles. Ap Dopay does not know enough to comment in detail on the technique, but he knows for a fact that there is nobody living today who knows this skill. One would even be lucky if one came across the fine embroidery in an old thangka (appliqué). Similarly, Ap Dopay said, the technique of making tatsi (paint) is dead. Most Bhutanese now import paint.

“Just like these two arts have died, I worry that the art of mani recitation would also die with me.”

Ap Dopay hopes that one day, people at the cremation ground will chant the mani and Thimphu valley will echo with their voices, celebrating the life of the dead, and reminding the living about the fragility of life and enhancing their compassion.

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