Dan Paton, a photographer from Oxford, UK visited Norlha in April this year to shoot new material and teach studio photography to Norlha’s Lhabum, He had heard about Norlha through a mutual Tibetologist friend, Jetsun Deleplanque, an old school friend of Dechen's and his ex-housemate whilst studying at SOAS in London. It was Jetsun who showed him the ad we had put out and he jumped at the chance. Dan had always dreamed of spending time in Tibet, having grown up with family connections to Tibetans and visited the Tibetan regions of Ladakh, Zanskar and Himachal Pradesh. He had never made it to the Tibetan Plateau and the idea of working at Norlha, which he describes as unique in the way it manufactures rare textiles made by nomads on the Plateau, of passing on his of photographic knowledge, of ‘shooting beautiful people wrapped in fabulous textiles’, and of becoming part of the Norlha community was for him a dream come true.
He found Ritoma, a small village of 200 families at the end of the road from Tso to be busy! He loved the chilled but industrious vibe of the workshop with its early starts and late finishes, the landscape of endless pasture they used as backdrop for many of the shoots, the dinners they were invited to by the local community families which he described as delicious feasts.
Dan greatly enjoyed working with the Norlha team. He found Dechen impressive in what she had accomplished, his photography student Lhabum keen and quick to learn. He found the whole team to be professional and passionate about what they do, innovative but humble, making things happen often without the perfect tools or situation while still pulling off results. He was excited by their willingness to learn and to listen and their flexibility do things differently if need be. Their dynamism left him optimistic that anything could be done and often quickly. He only wished that his clients back in the West were more like this!
Photographically speaking, he described his best moment as shooting the new range of Norlha scarves worn by the esteemed model Satya Oblette on a magical snowy morning at Norden camp. The morning sun’s increasing intensity melted the snow which slowly vaporized, gradually steaming up the landscape.
Non-photographically, it was seeing his first wild wolf on the outskirts of Ritoma. He said he loved wolves and had always wanted to see one in the wild. The large grey wolf looked back at him with beautiful piercing eyes and lingered for a few seconds before slinking off into the distance.
Dan said he felt at home in Ritoma. He liked the reserved, often shy nature of the people, their good-hearted, genuine and generous disposition so linked to the landscape and the rhythm of the grassland that bore them. His greatest challenge was completing everything he had set out to do, and which in fact, he is still doing, with some images he hasn’t been able to look at properly and finish. Dan left feeling he had a wonderful experience, with the most important being the relationships he made with people there. He hopes to do it again and described his time at Norlha as “slipping into a parallel dimension that was better than the one I usually find myself in...I just loved it and didn't want to leave!”
In this album, we show Dan at work followed by a selection of some of his favorite photos.
Life at Norlha Blog
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Horses used to be central to life on the Tibetan Plateau, for transportation, herding and symbols of status. The Plateau was famous for its handsome breeds and for centuries, they were a trading asset exchanged for tea, brocade and treasures from the Silk Road. Horses are still held in high regard, and though cars and motorbikes have taken their place for transportation, nomads still find them to be the best for herding, and especially for racing.
There are horse races all year around, all over Amdo. In Zorge, where Ritoma is located, the biggest race takes place in summer, at the time of the Lhatse, when men from all the clans in the area assemble in the broad valley just off the Ritoma grazing areas, pitch their tents in a wide circle and plant their arrows in the large conical structure that dominates the event. On the morning of the first day, they ride their horses and make offerings to the protector deity Amnye Machen and the local gods that dwell on the various surrounding peaks. Ritoma alone has four major ones, headed in importance by Amnye Tongra. The event is attended by all the villages in Zorge. Ritoma is the nearest village, two hills over, and local vendors come and install restaurant tents and market stalls selling goods ranging from toys to fruit. At Norlha we give our employees a three day break, and we recognize our weavers, tailors or managers among the crowd, the young unmarried girls and boys parading in their best, children tugging their mother’s sleeves for toys or snacks.
The races last three days and involve over a hundred horses, selected from the families in the area. Schedules are vague, people take their time, crossing over the wide plain sometime in the morning, to find a spot on the pasture, walking among herds of sheep and yak that are still grazing there, soon to be lead to the higher summer pastures. The atmosphere is relaxed, with spectators and horses slowly congregating towards the racing ‘track’ a circle of grassland marked off with colorful flags. Families or women and children sit in groups, taking out snacks and catching up.
On the final day, the fifteen finalists race, circling the track four times. The first thirteen horses are declared winners amidst much cheering and are paraded, covered in colorful scarves by well-wishers. The jockeys all ride bareback, some with helmets, others not. There are always a few accidents, marked with a horse galloping away from the track rider less, and people racing towards the spot of the mishap.
The race over, people congregate towards the stalls, picnicking on the grassland, to later attend the rope pulling games.
Made by hand, handcrafted, are the words that describe a product that doesn’t come out of a machine. The label it carries heightens its value, though we seldom reflect on the process that lead to its creation. A Norlha scarf, knit or felt is the result of many skills, of the dexterity and talent of one or more Norlha artisans. A woven textile alone requires know how in spinning, loading, weaving, finishing and knotting, separate skills often carried out by different men or women. Felting is another four; laying out, throwing, washing and picking. If the resulting fabric is sewn, tracing, hand and machine sewing are added to that.
Some of these skills existed locally, such as spinning weaving, hand sewing and felting, though all have been adapted or adjusted to more versatile methods or technologies. Others, such as knitting, machine sewing and loading are entirely new. We are fortunate that many of the older skills, having been in the DNA of our artisans for so many generations have now found an outlet at Norlha where they will thrive and be part of a thrilling creative process.
Many of our artisans are versatile and have at least three skills, while others excel in one. It should bring much satisfaction to reflect that the piece we wear and enjoy is the result of so much know how, ancestral knowledge passed down through generations and adapted to newer tools.
Originating in India, hatha yoga has found its way to the Tibetan Plateau. Last year, under the instruction of Andrew Taylor, who has been in Ritoma for the last two years, it has been introduced to the Norlha staff and offered at nearby Norden Camp.
Every day after work, any member of the Norlha staff can join in the yoga classes, held in the store room. In summer, Andrew sometimes takes his class on the pasture above the workshop, its inspiring vastness inviting decompression. Women, weavers or administrators, are particularly enthusiastic and three time a week, work over, can be seen filing into the store room, yoga mat rolled under their arm.
At Norden, the beautiful space by the river, with its enclosed room with a view on the river or its outdoor deck is an ideal setting for relaxing into the beautiful nature all around. Norden hosts yoga groups or provides its guests with individual instruction. With its inspiring setting that invites one to the heart of the grassland, Plateau Yoga is an unforgettable experience.
In Nepal and India's traditional families, sons follow in their father’s steps and adopt their line of work. Panch Anand hails from a small village in Southern Nepal, near the Indian border. At fourteen, he was sent to India for training, and on his return found work in Katmandu. There is no work in the village, and most men who are not agricultural based either join the army, look for work abroad or migrate to the capital. They send money back to their families, the more successful among them build large houses and educate their children, returning at most once a year.
There are few opportunities for weavers outside of Nepal, and India already has a pool large enough to fill their needs. Panch Anand has been working at Norlha for the last eleven years. There are Nepalese workers on the Tibetan plateau, mostly in the restaurant business in Lhasa, Shigatse and even Gyatse, but in faraway Amdo, they can be counted on a single hand. Life may be lonely, but Panch Anand managed to learn the basics of Amdo dialect and took great pride in training the Norlha artisans.
Panch Anand’s family remained in their village. Over the years, his daughter got married and he sent his son to learn weaving in India. He built his family a new house and became the "man who works abroad” in his village. One day, two years ago, he let us know of his future plans. His son, Ganesh was learning jacquard, which we had expressed an interest in, and he hoped that he could also work at Norlha. Panch Anand would continue to come for a couple of years, and eventually leave his job to his son. Ganesh came last year for the first time. He was everything his father could have hoped for; resourceful, hard working and proficient at what he was trained for. His father beamed with pride; he had achieved his goal. He could retire in comfort while his son follows in his steps.