A version of this piece appeared in The Asian Age on July 11 here
IF NATIONS are narratives, Tibet’s narrative is a narrative of pain: the pain caused in the wake of invasion, infiltration, usurpation and exploitation, and the disruption of its customs and traditions. At an exhibition of photographs, “Tibet: Then and Now”, currently on at the India International Centre in New Delhi, Tibet’s plaintive cry as a nation wrestling through the painful transformation of its history and culture ricochets through the basement gallery. The photographs, taken between 1914 and 2010, are vignettes of the Tibetan way of life that has all but disappeared or is fast disappearing.
As you walk into the gallery, a handout given to you at the reception declares: “It is not an anti-Chinese or a pro-Tibetan exhibition. This is the reality of the situation of Tibet and its people.” If you look closely, you observe that the reality of Tibet and its people is seeped in sorrow. The photographs were taken in Amdo, Kham and U-Tsang provinces of Tibet by French explorer Alexander David-Neel, former Tibetan government official Dudul N. Tsarong and Lobsang S. Taklha, the elder brother of the Dalai Lama.
In Section A (Tibet: Then), that compiles photographs taken between 1914-1957, Tibet’s past manifests itself in black and white portraits of its people: Farmers celebrate the first day of sowing crops by taking their “dzo” female yaks, decorated with colourful ornaments, to the fields; a Lhasa noble woman, donning a beautiful hat, stands with her attendants looking towards Kumbum Monastery in Amdo. Another haunting image of this period is that of the People’s Liberation Army holding a military parade, raising Chinese flags, in view of the Potala Palace, the chief residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th Dalai Lama fled, along with about 80,000 refugees, to Dharamsala after the 1959 Chinese invasion. Ask any Tibetan of that generation, a diminishing breed, and they will tell you sordid stories of people’s flight from villages, of monks and nuns being forced to do manual labour. Occupation comes with its own set of nightmares, anywhere in the world. And so it was in Tibet: Her sons and daughters were abused, imprisoned, tortured.
David-Neel was the first Western woman to enter Lhasa, the forbidden city. Being a Buddhist and spiritualist herself, she demonstrates deep empathy with her subjects that is evident in her compositions. From an opera troupe performing in the courtyard of a mansion in Lhasa, drogpa (nomads) in the Kokonor region of Amdo, a prayer ceremony in the courtyard of a monastery in Amdo, men and women threshing grain in a village courtyard in Amdo, a nomad lady in Kham wearing ‘nambu,’ an indigenous woolen cloth of Tibet to a Khampa couple outside their home in Dartsedo, she gives us a feel of the everyday life in Tibet. These snapshots provide a peek into Tibet’s glorious past when it was free, when the greed and tyranny of its ambitious neighbour had not sullied it, changing the daily chore of almost every Tibetan. Monks and nuns were made commoners, toiling hard in fields for livelihoods. Monasteries w ere considered frivolous and shut. Everything came under the jaws of the dragon. Nomads were forced to relocate to new settlements such as the one built at Darcha in Western Tibet. There were restrictions on large gatherings, so the Tibetan Buddhists took shelter in remote areas to carry on with their innocuous mass meditation.
An enitre civilisation was being wiped out. And the world merely watched. More than fifty years on, it is still watching. Merely.
Section B (1979-80) is all about the Beijing visit of a five-member Tibetan delegation from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Frame after agonising frame chronicles the fading away of Tibet’s traditional life and the destruction of its monasteries — Ganden, Tashi Lhunpo and Sakya, among many others — that were shelled during the “cultural revolution”.
Section C (2000-2010), which gives you glimpses of Tibet now, captures the ravages of the “modernisation” in Lhasa. They also tell several tales of exploitation of Tibet’s resources: Hillsides have been cleared in order to export timber to China and also to mine gold, uranium and zinc; a hydro-electric power at the sacred Yamdroke lake robs it of its pristine beauty even as China enjoys control of water supply; the otherwise useful rail link between Beijing and Lhasa is coupled with the threat of Tibet’s mineral resources being diverted.
Tibet today, it is evident, is not the Tibet it was. For the way it has changed, or made to change, Tibet has shed tears copiously, at seminars and conferences, at scattered demonstrations and feeble protests. If only the world was listening. Today, as Tibet is wilting under the occupation, it is also yearning for liberation. Perhaps, some day, it can breathe free. Perhaps.
The exhibition, which gets over on July 11, has been organised by the Bureau of the Dalai Lama, in association with the India International Centre and assembled by writer and activist Namgyal Taklha (widow of Lobsang S. Taklha) and her friend Jane Moore.