This Photo Story On Majnu Ka Tilla Reveals The Problems Of Homogenising Tibetans: A Response

Posted on July 4, 2014 in GlobeScope, Specials

By Souradeep Roy:

Sneha Roychowdhury’s photo story is a classic example of orientalism. In fact, her own opening comments about her own project of photographing Majnu ka Tilla, commonly known as MT or MKT, shows her oriental stance: she speaks of ‘oriental cuisine’, ‘beady bands’, ‘Tibetan charms’ and ‘austere monks’. Think of Tibet and all the clichés related to this land are placed in order. In fact, she herself acknowledges this ‘othering’ when she describes the children as being ‘born into the legacy of the other’. This acceptance and conscious statement of Tibetans as a kind of people who are exotic reinforces established cliches and draws the matter away from the real issue of freedom.

Picture Credits: Tonymadrid Photography
Picture Credits: Tonymadrid Photography

A similar instance of conscious ‘othering’ happened when the forces of imperialism saw the natives not as inhabiting a culture that is their own, but inhabiting a culture that is different from the colonizers, with the latter obviously being a more superior culture. Roychowdhury’s photo story, perhaps unconsciously, draws on this rhetoric by her repeated emphasis on how this place is different. Even though she talks of “signs of revolt and the symbols of struggle, evidently visible all over”, her photo story fails in her ability to portray the struggle; instead, she portrays the exoticism. Several of her statements, extremely cliched whenever one hears of random comments on states that have been unlawfully and forcefully subjugated by other states, suggest a complete alienation of Tibetans. They are “alienated by mankind and shunned by history.” While the former is factually incorrect (a survey of Tibet support groups run by non-Tibetans would suffice to prove this point), the latter is deeply problematic as it suggests that the road to freedom is over for Tibetans in the course of history. They have already been “shunned”, so what is the need to carry on the struggle? She also speaks of an “ideology of freedom and the aspiration of a lost identity”, while the ideology is hardly given emphasis in her photographs or in her remarks, the statement of an identity that is already ‘lost’ is deeply disconcerting. She seems to have misplaced the fact that Tibetans have not ‘lost’ their land; they have been forcefully evicted from it by the Chinese government, and that their identity as Tibetans has remained intact. In fact, the exile has only made it stronger.

There are also inherent contradictions in her story: it is both a “story untold” and “stories unnoticed”. While the latter is what the case with popular representation of Tibet among non-Tibetans, it must be understood that stories are always told, they are deliberately suppressed and are deliberately unnoticed. The onus is on the ones who fail to hear, not on the ones who are saying them. In such a scenario, “stories untold” and “stories unnoticed” must essentially be contradictory.

Apart from one picture of a graphitti that states “We Resist/ We Fight/ We Burn/ For Freedom/ In Tibet”, none of the pictures explain the actual struggle on the ground by Tibetans. Tenzin Tsundue states in an interview, “The stereotyping of Tibet as Shangri-la, a land of floating Buddhas, is hugely damaging since it does not recognise Tibetans as real human beings engaged in a political struggle.” This photo story essentially does that. Roychoudhury fails to see beyond what is underneath the surface of New Aruna Colony by refusing to acknowledge the heterogeneity of its residents, thereby unknowingly damaging the Tibetan struggle for independence.

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