40. The 13th Dalai Lama’s Double Bass

Lhasa, Tibet, 1920s
Size: instrument 170 × 56 cm; case 180 × 62 cm

This awesome instrument was commissioned by, or for, the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (1876–1933), who was apparently mad about American jazz. It’s a most unexpected and delightful idea. A band, I hope including those huge long Tibetan copper trumpets, rocking the Potala, His Holiness slapping the bass, a line of cooing nuns, nut-brown grizzled monks blowing their hearts out on all sorts of improbable instruments. It might seem a frivolous idea, but I don’t think of it like that. The spiritual life should not be an endless recitation of mournful prayers and bead-turning. The Mevlevi dervishes dance, the Helvetis provide sublime music for their meetings, in India sacred dance is recognised for what it is. It is a question of balance, and therefore the fact that the 13th liked jazz is proof for me that he was a truly spiritual man. Apart from his mysterious predictions, Nostradamus wrote a marvellous book of recipes for making jam – still available in Salon-de-Provence, where he lived – which likewise suggests to me that he was not some crazy mystic, but a fully rounded man, who lived in this world while communicating with another.

This is the Excalibur of instruments: only a strong man can release it from its case. The body is a waisted drum of black lacquered hardwood; the open front next to the fret-board stretched with python skin, and the lower bulb with a section cut away and carved with a filigree panel of calligraphic symbols and cloud-scrolls. The base of the drum is painted with some kind of howling jazz-demon and flowers. A ball-ended steel spike pulls out from the base. The huge wooden case is painted with Buddhist symbols, a big Dragon and a blowsy Phoenix, on green and yellow backgrounds, with steel hinges and rings to hold it all together. It is lined with different gold-embroidered silks, including a green panel with another swirling Dragon. When you see this instrument, the idea of rocking the Potala doesn’t seem so absurd.

The instrument was purchased by a diplomat stationed in Beijing from the Tsering family, who had been close to the 13th Dalai Lama. At the time Tibet was still closed to foreign visitors. During a period of exile in Northern India the 13th had been very taken with aspects of Western culture, and the Nobulinka Palace where he resided still houses Art Deco radios, gramophones and jazz records. A road was built between his residence and the Potala along which he could ride in his Model T Ford, carried up into the Himalayas by a team of porters.

Looking at the case one evening, it occurred to me that the Dragon illustrated on the green background must be dancing the jitterbug.