That Place Called Home

Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam investigate Tibet’s ongoing cultural transformations through their work

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published:December 24, 2015 12:10 am
Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam, Tibet culture, photo exhibition, culture transformation, Tibet culture transformation, Burning Against The Dying Of The Light, Filmmaker Ritu Sarin, Tibet documentary, Talk Image from Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s series titled “Burning Against The Dying Of The Light”

On November 13, 2011, an otherwise quiet street corner in the picturesque Tawu in eastern Tibet was unusually crowded. Thirty-five-year old Tibetan nun Ani Palden Choetso stood at the centre of a crowd offering prayers to The Dalai Lama. She was still, engulfed in flames, before she collapsed. Her funeral at a local monastery had thousands chanting prayers and a sombre candlelight vigil. The peace, however, turned into violence when the monastery was attacked by the armed forces two days later. The sequence of events went viral in a video, which is now part of a multimedia installation at Khoj Studios in Delhi.

It is one of the 149 acts of self-immolation that filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, have documented in their central work “Burning Against The Dying Of The Light”, whose title draws from a famous Dylan Thomas poem. “The wave of self-immolations (142 since 2009) emerged both as the only form of protest available to the Tibetans and as a manifestation of their continuing determination to challenge Chinese rule,” says Sonam, standing in front of a wall with 149 photographs — mostly of young adults, with blank squares where the photographs are missing. Playing on the loop is a video that shows the sleeping area of self-immolator Jamphel Yeshi in his rented room in Delhi’s Majnu ka Tila, the way he left it on the morning of his self-immolation in May 2012. Propped on a simple mattress is a book with a photograph of The Dalai Lama on the cover and a prayer wheel hanging above. Minimalistic, like several other homes in the neighbourhood.

The exhibition is a first in India for the husband-wife duo, who are also the festival directors of Dharamshala International Film Festival, which began in 2012. Married for more than 25 years now, the two stayed in London before making Dharamshala their home. “Our stories are about a certain community, and to understand it better we wanted to live within the community, to have that layered perspective. We also wanted our children to be close to nature, learn Hindi and Tibetan,” says Sarin.

The search for home, though, did take them to Tibet in 1998, where they filmed A Stranger in My Native Land, a poignant and personal account of Sonam’s first-ever visit to his homeland; from the Amdo Province, where the native language is lost, to Lhasa, where Sonam meets his long-lost relatives and gives a sense of the current times in the country. The room next door, at Khoj, has their critically acclaimed 26-minute film Some Questions on the Nature of Your Mind, commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna. Filmed in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in south India, the narrative is built around three sets of debates dealing with the basic Buddhist concepts of impermanence, lack of self-existence and dependent-arising. Through the act of bringing out the issues, the filmmakers hope for a better future. After all, central to the exhibition is a large rotating Buddhist prayer wheel — a tribute to the courage of the self-immolators and a grim reminder of their cause. Each revolution strikes a tiny bell, its sharp ring dispelling ignorance and sending out a message of hope and peace.

On November 13, 2011, an otherwise quiet street corner in the picturesque Tawu in eastern Tibet was unusually crowded. Thirty-five-year old Tibetan nun Ani Palden Choetso stood at the centre of a crowd offering prayers to The Dalai Lama. She was still, engulfed in flames, before she collapsed. Her funeral at a local monastery had thousands chanting prayers and a sombre candlelight vigil. The peace, however, turned into violence when the monastery was attacked by the armed forces two days later. The sequence of events went viral in a video, which is now part of a multimedia installation at Khoj Studios in Delhi.

It is one of the 149 acts of self-immolation that filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, have documented in their central work “Burning Against The Dying Of The Light”, whose title draws from a famous Dylan Thomas poem. “The wave of self-immolations (142 since 2009) emerged both as the only form of protest available to the Tibetans and as a manifestation of their continuing determination to challenge Chinese rule,” says Sonam, standing in front of a wall with 149 photographs — mostly of young adults, with blank squares where the photographs are missing. Playing on the loop is a video that shows the sleeping area of self-immolator Jamphel Yeshi in his rented room in Delhi’s Majnu ka Tila, the way he left it on the morning of his self-immolation in May 2012. Propped on a simple mattress is a book with a photograph of The Dalai Lama on the cover and a prayer wheel hanging above. Minimalistic, like several other homes in the neighbourhood.

The exhibition is a first in India for the husband-wife duo, who are also the festival directors of Dharamshala International Film Festival, which began in 2012. Married for more than 25 years now, the two stayed in London before making Dharamshala their home. “Our stories are about a certain community, and to understand it better we wanted to live within the community, to have that layered perspective. We also wanted our children to be close to nature, learn Hindi and Tibetan,” says Sarin.

The search for home, though, did take them to Tibet in 1998, where they filmed A Stranger in My Native Land, a poignant and personal account of Sonam’s first-ever visit to his homeland; from the Amdo Province, where the native language is lost, to Lhasa, where Sonam meets his long-lost relatives and gives a sense of the current times in the country. The room next door, at Khoj, has their critically acclaimed 26-minute film Some Questions on the Nature of Your Mind, commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna. Filmed in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in south India, the narrative is built around three sets of debates dealing with the basic Buddhist concepts of impermanence, lack of self-existence and dependent-arising. Through the act of bringing out the issues, the filmmakers hope for a better future. After all, central to the exhibition is a large rotating Buddhist prayer wheel — a tribute to the courage of the self-immolators and a grim reminder of their cause. Each revolution strikes a tiny bell, its sharp ring dispelling ignorance and sending out a message of hope and peace.

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