A life in transition

Tibetan cause

The sense of homelessness is a strange feeling. It makes one restless and dreamy. In dreams he re-imagines the land he left behind, the one he once called home. He builds a museum of memories and pines to revisit home once, even as a tourist.

So when India-born Tibetan filmmaker Tenzing Sonam visited his homeland for the first time, the imaginary world he had built in his mind after listening to poignant tales of their “home” from his father slowly started collapsing as he witnessed cultural transformation the region underwent under Chinese occupation. He chose to document this visit with his wife, filmmaker Ritu Sarin, and made a 32-minute documentary A Stranger in My Native Land.

The critically-acclaimed documentary, made in 1998, takes viewers to a remote village where Tenzing’s father was born. It is where he meets father’s first elder cousin and extended members of the family. And through conversations he documents how traditional Tibetan culture has decayed ever since his father fled in 50s. This, along with an array of short films, an installation and documentaries are part of a multi-media exhibition ‘Burning Against the Dying of the Light’ which is displayed at Khoj Studios in the capital.

The complex issue of Tibet’s autonomy has been documented by Tenzing and Sarin for several decades. They consider their profession “as a voice of the voiceless” and firmly believe that spotlight on Tibet’s freedom should never fade out. “We do what we do because we must do it. This is the only way we know how to do and what we would like to do. Hope it reaches out to every single person and we hope we have at least touched them in some way. I don’t think we have any illusions regarding changing anything,” Sarin tells Metrolife.

The title of the exhibition is taken from the central piece which is spread across three rooms and comprises a mixed-media video installation, The Wheel of Light and Darkness, single-channel video Funeral #1, Funeral #2 and Two Friends, printed material, photographs and a few videos.

The videos offer horrifying images of self-immolation and cremation and a strange kind of numbness grips the body, leaving the mind numb and frozen, even though momentarily. On the wall, in a frame, is a memorial for 149 people who so far have self-immolated to show their urge for autonomy and independence.  And between these two rooms is the cage-like installation that represents a prayer well. The concept of bringing symbolic Buddhist icon ‘prayer wheel’ and symbol for captivity ‘cage’ and putting various self-immolation videos on tablet on the installation highlight the dichotomy of ideologies.

“We have never done installations before so we came up with this because it conveyed our message without being too obvious,” he says. The central piece is the only segment of the exhibition that addresses political suppression and casualties from the perennial fight. The focus, Sarin says, was to showcase concerns the two are interested in. “The videos are from the place where we live (Dharamshala) and how globalisation has changed tradition. How old traditions of living and culture are paying way to modern lifestyles. We have documented such changes as well,” she says.

One of these changes comes across in a video Mud Stone Slate Bamboo which has nothing to do with Tibet. It is about building a traditional cow house in Dharamshala and the video traces its making. It captures hands that deftly cut a bamboo in such a way that it spreads as a mat which then becomes the roof of the house. “We wanted to show how we are losing local practices and how important it is to be in the harmony of surroundings,” says Sarin.

For Sarin, talking about subjects they are connected to is integral to their lives. And they, like artists, inquire and investigate to keep the cause alive.

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