Vijay Kranti speaks about his photos documenting Tibetan exile life

Vijay Kranti poses for a photo before two of his favourite photos he took of the Dalai Lama, at his exhibition in New Delhi, India, on 14 April 2016.

Vijay Kranti poses for a photo before two of his favourite photos he took of the Dalai Lama, at his exhibition in New Delhi, India, on 14 April 2016. Tibet Sun/Lobsang Wangyal

By Lobsang Wangyal

NEW DELHI, India, 16 April 2016

Forty-four years of photos tell the story of exile Tibetans’ long journey to a new life in India, and Vijay Kranti’s journey with them. With the title “Thank you Dalai Lama”, Mr Kranti says the exhibition at the All-India Fine Arts and Crafts in New Delhi was an Indian photographer’s tribute to the success story of the Tibetan refugee community, its monk leader the Dalai Lama, and their magnanimous hosts — the people and Government of India.

Vijay Kranti, a photojournalist and Tibetologist, has been documenting the exile Tibetan community since 1972 through writings and photography. This exhibition was the concluding show of Mr Kranti’s five-year-long photo festival titled “Buddha’s Home Coming”. The week-long photo exhibition, concluded on Friday, contained 300 photos, the pick of 2.5 lakh images, curated by Akshat Kranti Mahajan, a well-known fashion photographer.

The photos showed how Tibetans have in effect recreated their civilisation in India. A part of the exhibition showed moods and moments of the Dalai Lama, in public as well as private. In all, the photos speak of how much Mr Kranti has given for Tibet and the Tibetan people.

Lobsang Wangyal finds out how Mr Kranti’s long journey with Tibetans started.

Tell us about your journey with Tibetans and the Dalai Lama. And your first photos that you clicked of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans.

The first click was, I’m not sure, but it was surely in McLeod Ganj, in November 1972. There was an editor of a news magazine who liked my style of writing, when I was very young, only two years into the profession. He was very kind to me. He advised I should do some serious stories also, at least one serious story in a year. He’s a big writer, even today he’s one of the most respected Hindi writers — Himanchu Joshi. He said he wanted to write a novel about tibet, but because of his work, he didn’t get time. So he said, why don’t you do a story on Tibet.

And then he promised me, that if I could bring an interview of the Dalai Lama, then he would give me a cover story. So this was a huge carrot for a very young journalist. Because at two years, you cannot imagine a journalist getting a cover story at that young age. So he offered, and I took it as a challenge.

I first wanted to understand Tibet. So I luckily ran into an autobiography of Dalai Lama, and then I had some feel of the subject.

I went to the Dalai Lama bureau in Delhi; I made a request and they agreed, so I went to Dharamshala. So before they organised my audience with His Holiness, I was taken around to Tibetan establishments: the Tibetan Children’s village, the Handicraft Centre.

Then I met so many young Tibetans at that time. And those young Tibetans at that time are the “who’s who” of Tibetans today — for example Lodi Gyari, Jamyang Norbu, Lhasang Tsering, Tenzin Geshe, Sonam Topgyal. These are the people who were in my first list, whom I came across the first time. And, I must say that I was impressed by their focus, their commitment, their unity, their teamwork.

And then, after I met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I was very impressed. Something which impressed me most was, here was a religious leader, very different from the religious leaders we have been used to knowing — those who live in comforts, and care for themselves only, and hardly have a social outlook. But here was a man who is in exile, who is heading a team of refugees — 80,000 or 1 lakh — and he had the vision to use, to channel, the energies and talent of those surviving refugees, in such a manner that he had revived the Tibetan identity, Tibetan culture, Tibetan national pride, and Tibetan civilisation, in a totally unknown country. So that impressed me. I liked him.

I was so young. I love to remember one thing: His Holiness knew that there was one journalist Vijay Kranti coming from Delhi to interview him. And when I went inside I met him. And he didn’t say much about this. And at the end of your interview, when it was concluding, then he said, “OK wait, I will tell you something interesting.” He held my hand — and that feel was wonderful — and he told me, “When I came to know there was a journalist Vijay Kranti coming from Delhi, I thought it must be a very tall, big man. And I was waiting for him. When you came, I thought, oh this small man, it must be somebody else.” I was too young and too small.

And he said, “now, when I find, oh, this is Vijay Kranti, I like you more now.” [laughs] So that was very interesting.

Normally we journalists, we write on one subject, and forget it; we shift to another subject. But with Tibet, with Dalai Lama, I don’t think I could do it. I was hooked. It was love at first sight. The young Tibetans I named, I was very impressed by that team of young people. I was impressed by their leader, I was impressed by the unity of Tibetan society, I was impressed by their devotion to their leader and to their cause. So all that was a great experience, which hooked me.

And I must add one point: I also belong to a refugee family. My parents came as refugees from Pakistan and occupied Kashmir. I was born in a refugee slum in Delhi. So I had heard my father and mother remembering their home, and going through all the hardship that refugees normally go through.

So basically you are saying that their life in exile and their devotion to their cause, you can relate to in your own personal experience, and that kept you going.

It connected me with Tibetans, there was a common link, because I knew what it means to be a refugee.

So, initially I had been taking pictures only so that my stories would be accepted by the magazines. The editor of Saptahik Hindustan, he introduced me to their artist, who laid out the whole story. He saw my pictures, and he was very impressed by my pictures. He was a very kind man — Tuliki ji. He himself was a very good artist, a very good painter, he was a great photographer, and more than that, a wonderful human being.

So he advised me, when he saw my Tibet pictures, that I should take my photography seriously. I did. And he helped me for many years, he was a guide to meon the intricate and delicate things of photography.

So, intially we started only to supplement my writing. But then I started taking photos of Tibetans — they are very photogenic, the culture is colorful. And now today I can claim that I have over 250,000 pictures on Tibet.

There must be many stories — intricacies, beautiful, difficult and trying moments — in the 44 long years. Tell us something about those moments.

Well there have been many high and low points in this relationship. I mean, if you are married, I don’t think there is any married couple, who say that every day they were happy. And my love affair with Tibet was like that. Luckily, most of the the days, most of the events, were happy. It gave me a big satisfaction.

Not only that, when I write on tibet, I find hundreds of Tibetans who admire it. There are many occasions when somebody spots me in the street and says “Are you Vijay Kranti, oh thank you sir. You are doing so much for my country.” And you know that gives me happiness.

But I also feel that it’s not one way. Tibet contributed something great to me. Professionally I got a wonderful subject to study, to write about, to think about, to work for. And otherwise it’s a great purpose, if I made any contribution towards the cause of Tibet, as a human being, it gives me satisfaction. And then, it made me a photographer.

Otherwise I would never have thought that I would have been invited to some of the great places of the world, to put up my exhibitions. For example, the elder brother of the sitting president of Germany invites me to present a photo exhibition on Dalai Lama. It could never have happened, has I not been knowing Tibet.

So it’s a two-way.

There have been low points. Many times I come across Tibetans, especially in the bureaucracy, I must say, there is no prejudice. But I find many times that some individuals sitting in high places in Tibetan administration, they are not sensitive to their own situation. They dont understand how to deal with outsiders. They very easily offend even friends. And I’ve been offended more than once, enormously. So much so, that on a couple of moments I thought, I should stop my association with Tibet, if this are the kind of people I have to deal with.

But then immediately I got the answer also. Because I realised: I am not working for these men. I didn’t start loving Tibet because of these men. I am doing it for people living inside Tibet. Those who are striving in the streets of India, for Tibet. I love them. [laughs warmly]

There are so many photos that you have clicked of the Dalai Lama. Tell us, which is one is your favourite, and tell us a bit more about that particular photograph.

Oh this is a very easy question to answer. The answer is, these are like my babies. I’m like a mother or a father of these babies. And no mother or father would tell you, I love this one and I don’t love this other one. I love these photos.

Of course there are a few which are very outstanding which I love. For example, I love my photo of Dalai Lama riding a yak in Zanskar, which I took in 1980. And there are many reasons. One is, it’s my exclusive picture. One is, it’s a really wonderful piece of photography. Another reason is, I got it because his holiness presonally invited me to join him for one month in his journey around Ladakh. So everything was there. It gives me a lot of joy, satisfaction.

Then there is one of His Holiness sitting in meditation. There is another where he is reading a magazine in his private house.

There are a few interesting things associated. When I got a chance to photograph His Holiness in his private house, it was a huge protocol issue, and I had to be very sensitive once I was allowed. So when I was entering his private room, I was very reluctant, I may commit some mistake which people may not like — the officers or his attendants who were attending.

So I asked His Holiness, beause I wanted to be sure that I’m not committing any mistake. So I asked him, how much freedom do I have when I’m going around in your house, so I should remain in that. So he looked at me and gave me a big smile, and he looked around, “Freedom, how much, let me think.”

And then in his window he saw his cat. He says, “Oh, that cat. OK. You have freedom as much as my cat. Is it ok?”

I was so happy, because I know the cat doesn’t have to ask so many questions. So I immediately said yes. And he said, “So, this means you are my cat.” So this photography was done by that cat.

So I got these pictures, which are the most beautiful pictures, and I think they remain still the most exclusive images of His Holiness taken by any photographer.

There is another picture, I had to take a portrait of His Holiness, he was waiting for me, I was trying to fix up my gadgets. Suddenly I looked up, and I saw His Holiness, he was waiting for me, and he was looking out of a window of his house,. It was a beautiful window, full of so many frames, against the horizon of the sky of Kangra Valley, and His Holiness, and that frame, that’s all. It was a huge silhouette standing in front of me with Dalai Lama, giving a perfect frame. So I immediately left everything and click click click, I took a few pictures. And I think those are the most magnificent pictures I’ve taken as a photographer.

So there are many.

Now I have started shooting Dalai Lama, in the eyes of those people who are watching I find, in the crowds — many times you find a crowd of thousands of people — in their eyes you can feel the Dalai Lama, they are watching him, they are listening to him with their hands folded, eyes shut or eyes open, some people with mouths open, out of awe. So that image will transport you to a new different world.

And I have a huge series of pictures where there is the Dalai Lama, but he is just outside the frame, not in the frame. But I can feel Dalai Lama in every picture, because I can feel him in every eye. So there is a lot of joy of being with Tibetans and with Dalai Lama.

In the meantime you also went to Tibet a few times. So that’s also part of your journey, documenting Tibetan life. Tell us about those journeys and the difficulties, and what did you achieve.

When China opened Tibet to tourists, I was very keen to go there. In the initial days I didn’t have enough money. I am not a rich, and surely not a stinking rich man. Now luckily I can look afer myself very well. But those were days when I could not afford expensive journeys, and that was one of them. But very soon I could manage it.

I decided to go to Tibet. Initially I was worried the Chinese would not allow me. But then I studied the subject very seriously. I discovered the Chinese are hungry people. The government is very hungry for dollars. They call it “tourism dollars”. So then, I’m a journalist. The Chinese have put a blanket ban on journalists. But there was no ban on tourists. So I booked myself as a tourist.

One more reason for going there was, I wanted to be sure as a journalist, when Tibetans talko of atrocities and the sad situation in Tibet, I wanted to be be sure, to check it, whther they were making a fool of me or they were right. I wanted to be sure that Tibetans are not taking me for a ride, for all those years. So I wanted to see Tibet myself. I went there, and then I went again. I also wanted to document the life of Tibetans under Chinese rule. So whatever freedom a tourist gets, I made the best use of it. I never made it illegal, but I made the best use of the situation.

I travelled across Tibet. I must have travelled in total, around 5,000 kilometres over the Tibetan surface. I went to Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, covering Amdo, Kham, and U-Tsang. Whatever I could see, I did it. It gave me a very good feeling, and now I can speak with more understanding.

Going to Tibet was very educative. Many times when I’m in exile, among Tibetan refugees, my faith in Tibet or Tibetans keeps on wavering, sometimes like a sine curve. There are Tibetans whom I meet, I feel very happy, very hopeful about Tibet. But there are many times I meet Tibetans, when I see their conduct, I’m afraid that Tibet doesn’t have very good future. I’ll be very frank about it.

But, when I went to Tibet, and I met and saw people there living under Chinese guns, literally. They don’t have any freedom. The moment you enter any town, you are searched, you are identified, asked so many questions by the military, at the entry point. And when you leave, again you are asked. When you are in the town you are followed enormously, by agents.

But still, the courage those people hold.

The moment you get a chance meeting a Tibetan alone, where this person is sure that no one else is listening, then you can see the feeling they have, the determination they have.

So I’ve been to so many nangmas. In almost every town I go to the nangma — the dance bar. It’s so impressive, the kind of songs they love, that shows Tibet is not going to lose. So, one thing which gave me a big reassurance, was being in Tibet. I wish Tibetans living outside Tibet, could learn from the courage of Tibetans inside.

So that way I think it was a very educative, a very positive experience, being in Tibet.

Is there any particular photograph that you want to talk about, to share, that you feel was very special, close to your heart, that you have taken inside tibet?

There were quite a few pictures which were very touching. And a few pictures which I could not take.

But I met so many people, without knowing English — I can’t speak Tibetan, they don’t speak English or Hindi, and still we communicated, very effectively. I’m sure they knew what I was talking, and I knew what they were talking. The people, the way they were keen about knowing the safety and health of His Holiness Dalai Lama. They would ask in gestures, and I would give them answer, and I would see the happiness in their eyes, that was there.

There was one lama I met, a very old one, at one place. We were in a place where we were all watched by cameras, by police, by security people, It was an establishment. And I had a chance to talk to this man. He approached me, very quietly he asked me, where I am from. And I told him “Gyaka”, so he was thrilled. When we were leaving he very quietly — he knew a few Hindi words — and he held my hand and whispered in my ear “Tibat ko bulna nahin [Do not forget Tibet]”.

Then there was one place, where I bought a ticket to enter the monastery, and there was a monk selling the tickets, and he asked me — he knew some English — “From which country? Pakistan?” Maybe he must have seen other Pakistanis earler. And I said, “No, I am from Gyaka.” When he heard “Gyaka” from my mouth, he was so thrilled, I could see flames, sparkles, in his eyes.

Then he said, “Oh, you’re from India.” I said “Yes.” Then he spoke to his colleague, they whispered something, and then he said, “Please give back your ticket.”

So I was worried that he’s not allowing me, and I said, “No, I have to go and see the monastery.” And he said, “No no, but please give the ticket. You will see the monastery.” And I said, “But how, I paid for it, it’s my ticket.” He said yes, and he gave me back the money and took the ticket.

I said, “but I want to go …”

“Yes, we said you will go. How can we charge a man [long pause] a fee [long pause] in whose country my Dalai Lama is living.”

So that was very touching. He said, “my Dalai Lama lives in your country and I should charge you for a ticket? No I will not.”

That was beautiful. That gives you assurance, that things are not bad.

Unfortunately, many Tibetan leaders just don’t understand Tibet. They don’t know the commitment and the strength of the Tibetan people living inside Tibet. So that is why they are ready to surrender. I feel very sad. they should have understood Tibet better than me.

But anyhow. The reality inside Tibet is not going to change only because some people don’t understand in exile.

The photos are so powerful, so beautiful. Everything is there, photographically, intellectually, historically, everything is there. They speak a lot. And I can also see, how much you have given as an Indian, as a photo journalist, for this cause. Don’t you think this show should be travelling in India, at least in the metropolis.

Yes, not only in the metropolis, there should be some Tibetan establishment, who should make best use of the resources available. I’m not boasting about the quality of my work. I hope that the praise you give to my work is genuine and not only just to show off for me. If there is work like this, there are many other good things done by others.

It is the duty of the Tibetan establishment, to identify those things, those assets, and share with the rest of India. It’s not for me. I am a journalist, I am a family man, I have my limitations of funds.

I have put all the talent I have, I have put all the time I had, I had put all the limited resources I had to do this photography for years. But I don’t have the funds to organise a huge exhibition. I don’t have the funds to carry the exhibition to ten different cities, to tell people to come and see this. I have done my part. The establishment should do its own part. They should come forward, and they should ask, ok, let us see how we can make it practical. Do a setup in which we can organise an exhibition in two dozen cities in two years. Because then this work will be of some use.

But that will require, number one, imagination on the part of the Tibetan leaders. And then, that openness, accepting the work done by someone outside. So I don’t want to speak too much on this … [laughter]

You have one coffee-table book about Tibet. Do you think that some of these images, which are not published before, even not seen before. Do you think the book should be updated?

I will be very frank. I have been thinking of updating that book for the last many years. I’ve been planning, at least six years ago, that when His Holiness is 80, before that this book should be in a revised edition. This time it should be in colour, because now I have a much larger variety of good pictures of His Holiness. And then I also wanted some fresh pictures of His Holiness. And do some interview, and information, with His Holiness. So that my last hope was, 26 years ago. So in these 26 years, a lot has happened. So I need to ask him a few questions, on this period.

But unfortunately there are people, officials, around His Holiness, who have been denying me interview for the last six years. For their own reasons, I don’t know. Why? I fail to understand. I don’t have to establish my credibility again.

As far as His Holiness is concerned, he is very open to me, very friendly. There have been a dozen occasions in this period, where he spotted me in a crowd of 200 or 2,000, and he grabbed me and hugged me and spoke to me and was holding my hand and carrying me along.

So the problem is not on the part of His Holiness, it is some individuals who are doing it. I think they are denying His Holiness Dalai Lama, the advantage of meeting friends.

Only because I believe in rangzen, somebody put me on a blacklist. I think they are insulting His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They are misjudging the wisdom of His Holiness. They are denying His Holiness the advantage of information and analysis and wisdom of his friends. I think the establishment should take notice of such people. And this is happening with many other friends of Tibet. The same thing is happening. I think the Tibetan establishment has to take serious note of this.

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