Through an Adventurer's Lens
The year was 2006. On board a Chinese railway train from Xiling to Gormo in Quinghai province an Indian traveller stood out in contrast to his Chinese co-passengers. At midnight, while he was trying to get some sleep like the other passengers in the coach, a Chinese police officer came up to him and asked him to show his passport. He took it away and returned a good three hours later much to the relief of the Indian passenger.
This was Vijay Kranti's closest shave with the law in the forbidden land of Tibet and it was on his second visit there.
The photographer-journalist-Tibetologist and daredevil adventurer recalled that the train journey from Xiling to Gorma that night could have sounded the end of his zeal to know more about Tibetans. “I had with me a Nikon camera and around 90 film rolls,” he told The Statesman on the sidelines of his photo exhibition, Inside The Colony, held in New Delhi recently.
Kranti's first visit to Tibet took place a year after the Chinese government in a bid to project its humane face in Tibet opened up the region to tourists in 2002. “Before opening Tibet to international tourism, China took care to ensure that visitors can't see anything that China does not want them to see.
It is like a murderer throwing a party after cleaning up the murder site. Spotting meaningful frames in such a situation is a great challenge to a professional photo-journalist,” Kranti said.
It was his first assignment as a freelance journalist with Saptahik Hindustan that first brought Kranti in contact with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. “When I approached the Dalai Lama for the first time in 1972 at his Dharamshala headquarters it was with a kind of professional detachment, not out of any reverence or any sense of spiritual allegiance. But when I met him I was greatly impressed by him. He converted 80,000 Tibetan refugees in India into one of the best organised refugee settlements,” he said.
The love and bonding with the Dalai Lama and Tibet has continued. Kranti has since held photo-exhibitions in various parts of Europe and America.
His first visit to Tibet in 2003 had a direct bearing on his first contact with the Dalai Lama. Kranti had long wanted to go there. “It was to lend a sense of credibility to my Tibetan studies that I decided to take advantage of the Chinese decision to open up Tibet to tourists and entered the region for the first time in 2003 on a tourist visa.
“There is no doubt that urban parts of Tibet have undergone tremendous modernisation. Wonderful malls, wide roads, impressive housing complexes and most lavish car brands are seen on the streets. Only if you can distinguish between a Chinese and a Tibetan face would you realise who owns these goodies and for whose benefit all this development is being undertaken,” Kranti said.
His photographs underline attempts by the Chinese authorities to blur and obliterate anything that has to do with Tibet, its culture, spiritual traditions and people. Every nook and corner of Tibet today is replete with contrasting pictures: of beaming, happy and prosperous Chinese faces versus Tibetan faces reflecting poverty and deprivation.
His first expedition to Tibet, in his own words, left him confused and groping for words as it was so different a Tibet from what he had read and learnt, a well decked up Tibet with modern amenities which would even give any major Indian city a complex. The second visit was a more enlightened one. He travelled 5,000km into the Yunnan, Sichuan, Quighai and TAR provinces of Tibet. “My exclusive focus during the second trip was on verifying China's claim that Tibet has undergone unprecedented development, that the region has gained out of this change and that Tibetans are 'very happy' under Chinese rule.”
Kranti's photographs of life inside Tibet has ruffled quite a few feathers. But the recipient of the KK Birla Foundation Fellowship and numerous accolades for his work on Tibet longs to make another visit there.
On his first trip he had 70 film rolls on him and escaped the scrutiny of a police officer by pretending to be a teacher of English. At the end of his second expedition he had 90 film rolls. “Anything could have happened to me had I been caught with these films. Obviously it would not have been easy to explain the reason for taking so many photographs. But when I have a mission to complete nothing can come in my way,” the adventurer asserted.
This article was first printed in The Statesman, India. Courtesy: Asian News Network
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