Prisoners of Shangri La

By     Jul 24, 2014
Founding Member, The Tibetan Art Collective

Thupten Kelsang Dakpa

“The pathos in writing about life in exile is marked by an insistence on the loss of a better world.” – Tsering Wangmo Dhompa

Most people have some conception of Tibet on their mind. A cold barren land with only mountains for company, a rich traditional Buddhist history, the free Tibet movement, and so forth. Tibet as a nation and its people has been explored in multiple narratives in public imagination via popular fiction and cinema. The relative geographical inaccessibility fueled the desire to discover the Shangri-la, a Buddhist haven of mystery, pristine nature and peace. Hence, the creative (and often fictional) work produced in reference to Tibet has imprinted the classic Tibetan stereotypes in the global psyche.

My grandparents escaped Tibet and came into exile in 1959. For a long time, they sustained themselves and my young parents by breaking stones on the roads to Kullu (Himachal Pradesh, India). Fast forward two generations. The times have changed, the narratives have changed. And, so have the voices. The experience of exile has transformed Tibetan society. We have influences from various host cultures in our speech, our identity, our way of thinking and our way of life.

However, the Tibetan Diaspora has adhered to and further propagated the pre-existing conventional stereotypes of Tibet, which continues due to the relative degree of success of that model in generating global empathy and support for the ‘Tibetan Cause’. However, recognizing the disenfranchising narrative of being victims/prisoners of history and acknowledging the diversity in Tibet and its people, there is simultaneously an intrinsic need to embrace our experiential history as a Diaspora, alongside our socio-political identity. Despite the advent of modern forms of Tibetan cultural expression and recent commercial success of Tibetan contemporary art, I feel that the current discourse needs to take into account the changing demographics of the Tibetan Diaspora, which includes the widening of the gap between generations that truly live a community identity, in order to develop a sustainable model of cultural preservation and check cultural isolation that leads to alienation from host communities.

Coming back to the idea of representation, I feel that there is a great need to move beyond limiting the Tibetan identity as one rooted in a culture of protest, to other forms of expression. Our identity, as Tibetans, should not be limited to this exoticized notion of “simple Buddhist people who are agitating against Chinese occupation”. With these thought in mind, I started the Tibetan Art Collective in 2011 as an informal Facebook group. The first project was a collaborative graphic novel titled ‘Of Shamans and Shadows’. Over the last three years, we have been able to establish the basic framework of the organisation with creative individuals of Tibetan origin, mentor/partner organisations such as Mechak and academics to form a global network dedicated to Contemporary Tibetan Culture. In my work within the cultural sector, I've come to acknowledge the potential of artist-led initiatives whether it’s the journey of Khoj or the more recent Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The growth of artist-led initiatives, democratic public spaces and forums for informed critical debate is vital for an organic and sustainable growth of the arts.

I look forward to the Creative Community Fellowship community turning into my mentors, collaborators and fellow travelers in my search for a nuanced and self reflective 'representation' in exile.

Cover Image: 8 Spirits by Tsherin Sherpa  (Used with Permission)