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The Dance Drama of Pholey Moley

Bhutan does not have a rich tradition of theatre, and most of Bhutans
performing arts are associated with Buddhism. The Pholey Moley dance
is one of the very few folk dance-dramas and certainly the only one
performed consistently throughout the entire country. Pholey Moley
means the handsome men and beautiful women. It features two
couples and several clown figures, and is constituted of a great deal of
lewd jokes and pranks. Though performed for entertainment it
nonetheless carries a strong moral message.

It is said to have been based on the story of King Norzang, a righteous

human monarch who has fallen in love with a nymph-like goddess. The
story of Norzang is a popular narrative in the Himalayan world and is
enacted in the Tibetan theatrical performance of Ache Lhamo as one of
the eight stories performed by Tibetan Ache Lhamo theatre groups.
However, the Bhutanese Pholey Moley dance doesnt bear much
semblance to the Tibetan performance. This dance-drama is often the
last dance to conclude the days public performances during a festival.

The two male figures wear ceremonial gho (), the national dress for
men in Bhutan, and ceremonial boots called tshoglham () or
dralham (). They each wear a mask depicting a fair handsome
man. They wear scarves crisscrossed over their torsos and also a long
sword hanging from their waists, held by silver belts with intricate
carvings. They also wear an ornate and large silver amulet box that
hangs around their neck on silk scarf. The two female characters, also
played by men, wear masks of fair beautiful women. They are dressed
in intricately designed kira (), the national dress for women, which
are made from very expensive textiles. They wear silk blouses and
jackets and traditional boots for women called tsanglham (). Also
present are many clowns, chief of whom are an old man wearing a dark
mask and woolen robe, and an old woman wearing a dark mask with
red lips and a kira bearing the traditional montha () pattern.

The dances choreography is simple, though the two men and women
sing complicated songs to each other. The dance is accompanied by
the sounds of a small cymbal and two long horns. After the first
chapter, the two male dancers leave the ground, to indicate King
Norzangs departure for war. Before they leave, they adorn their wives
with the silver caskets and rings as tokens of love. The next act is full
of pranks by the clowns as they seduce the beautiful women in their
husbands absence. The clowns carry the women off to the corners of
the stage and fondle them. The old dark woman, on her part, shows
human jealousy by violently beating the clowns for the undivided
attention paid to the beautiful women.

When the handsome men reappear on the scene, they are upset to
discover their wives adultery. Quite rashly, they punish the ladies by
cutting off the tips of their noses with their swords. A doctor is
summoned to treat the wounds, but he has to be enticed using various
offers before the women are finally treated. The final scene enacts a
war between the two handsome men and the clowns. An artificial
barrier is erected and the two confront each other brandishing swords
and sticks. Each scene, though performed solemnly by the lead
characters, are filled with jokes, light-hearted pranks, and exaggerated
gestures by the clowns. Thus, the dance-drama is full of jovial scenes
and boisterous acts, some of which is composed extemporaneously by
the witty and capable clowns. As such, it is one of the most
entertaining public performances in any village festival although it
contains a lot of erotic scenes which are not particularly family-friendly.
The dance-drama, like other dances during a festival, is performed on
the ground as those assembled both socialize with each other and
comment on the performance.

Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden
Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History
of Bhutan.