The singing nun of Kathmandu
- 8 June 2013
- From the section Asia
With several albums and a series of concerts around the globe under her belt, the singing nun of Kathmandu is taking the Nepalese and international music industry by the storm.
Draped in a maroon robe, serene-faced Ani Choying Drolma hardly looks like a pop icon - but her music videos show that she is as comfortable singing and performing as she is meditating with her prayer beads.
This is a woman who stands out from the crowd, a woman who by her own admission loves to do things "which nuns are not supposed to do".
She goes out with friends to watch Hindi films "like a regular person", and is not averse to the idea of kicking a football to inaugurate a charity tournament.
Choying has developed a unique style of chanting Tibetan hymns in which she lets the last notes linger for a long period before they ultimately melt into thin air.
She says that while she is not a trained musician in any technical sense, her singing comes from deep within.
"The voice I'm able to bring out to the world is [inspired by] my deep spiritual devotion and my faith in the wisdom of Lord Buddha," she says.
Like scores of other Tibetan refugees, her father came to Nepal in the 1950s. Campaigners say that at least 20,000 fled south across the Himalayas following the 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Growing up in abject poverty in the refugee quarters of Kathmandu, Choying had a troubled childhood. She says her short-tempered father would beat her and her mother for no apparent reason.
She has recorded these traumas in her autobiography, Singing for Freedom, in which she narrates how she decided at an early age not to marry after witnessing her mother's suffering.
"My father was someone who exhibited some unpleasant qualities of men," she told the BBC.
"He made me feel that getting married would be the worst thing to do in life.
"Somehow he was able to... develop a lot of my negative qualities which led to a lot of anger, frustration and bitterness."
Choying says that when she told her mother about her decision not to marry she received an ultimatum - join a Buddhist monastery and become a nun or stay in the secular world and find a husband.
Desperate to break free, she decided to join a monastery near Kathmandu when she was barely 13 years old.
But she says even there she faced bias against women.
"In monasteries it is thought that women don't have the capability to development themselves spiritually," she said.
"There I would dream of going for higher studies and develop myself spiritually but it did not happen."
Because she could not complete her studies in the monastery she found solace in music - without realising her potential as a singer.
"Singing and dancing were things I enjoyed since childhood," she said, "while playing with my kid brother or cooking, washing or even when I was very sad, I would sing."
In the monastery she would meet a lot of devotees from abroad who encouraged her to find her voice.
One of the first music cassettes Choying received as a present made a lasting impact on her - it was by American blues singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt who rapidly became Choying's favourite.
But the man who really identified Choying's potential as a singer was American guitarist Steve Tibbetts, who was a regular visitor to the monastery.
He introduced her to the international music scene. Her first exposure to a global audience came in 1998 when she travelled to the US to perform in various cities.
It was during one such tour that Choying noticed in the audience "a red-haired woman" who resembled her childhood idol Bonnie Raitt.
"I shrugged off the thought thinking why would a celebrity singer come to my concert," says Choying. But at the end of the concert, the "red-haired woman" walked up to her and said: "I am Bonnie Raitt and I am a big fan of yours."
It was a memorable moment.
"I looked at her in total bewilderment," Choying recalled, and said, 'are you kidding me, actually I am a big fan of yours!'"
"Then she introduced me to her musicians," Choying remembers with a glint in her eyes.
Since then Choying has travelled far and wide without losing sight of her lifelong aim to educate girls, especially from poorer backgrounds.
As the money started pouring in with the sale of her albums, in 2000 she founded Arya Tara school for novice nuns near Kathmandu.
Preparing to record her latest devotional hymns in an ordinary-looking studio, Choying says she is waiting for travel documents to go on a musical tour to China - a tough choice for someone born as a refugee to visit the country perceived as an oppressor.
But then Ani Choying Drolma has learnt to manage her anger through music and meditation. She says she has forgiven her father and everything else pales in comparison.