Shadow Circus: Revisiting a forgotten chapter of Tibet’s history

A project by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, Shadow Circus, an exhibition at IIC New Delhi, is based on their personal archive of the Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation between 1957 and 1974

Shadow Circus: Revisiting a forgotten chapter of Tibet’s history
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Garima Sadhwani

A project by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, Shadow Circus, an exhibition at the India International Centre in New Delhi, is based on their personal archive of the Tibetan resistance to Chinese occupation between 1957 and 1974.

Sarin, a filmmaker, hopes that by them highlighting the “little-known and early phase of Tibet’s armed struggle against Chinese aggression”, discussions will begin about the current situation of Tibet and its geopolitical realities.

Sarin and Sonam started researching on the little-known about Tibetan armed resistance in the early 1990s while working on a documentary film for BBC. Over the years, they met many former resistance fighters who were living quiet lives in Nepal, and were surprised when the filmmaker duo reached out to them for interviews.

Sarin recalls, “One of the men we met was Bapa Yeshe, the former commander of the Mustang Resistance Force. To start our interview, we asked him a simple question about his background in Tibet. Once he started, the floodgates opened and he literally didn’t stop talking for the next three days!”

One might wonder if the armed resistance is so well-hidden from Tibet’s own history, how did Sarin and Sonam stumble across it for their documentary and exhibition. Well, what has been masked and essentially erased from Tibet’s history is an unforgotten part of Sonam’s family history, with his father, Lhamo Tsering, being the Chief of Operations of the movement.

Shadow Circus: Revisiting a forgotten chapter of Tibet’s history
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Sonam shares that his father was a close aide and companion of Gyalo Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, when they met as students in the 1940s in northeastern Tibet. He adds that after China invaded Tibet in the 1950s, his father and Thondup relocated to Kalimpong and initiated “anti-Chinese activities”, following which America’s CIA got in touch with them and appointed Tsering as the liaison between the CIA and the armed Tibetan movement.

Recalls Sonam, “My father was always a meticulous record-keeper and realised the importance of maintaining detailed records of the operations he was in charge of. Over the years, he collected thousands of photographs, documents, letters, maps, and miscellaneous ephemera relating to the resistance.” It was using these very notes and archives that Tsering wrote an 8-volume account of Tibet’s armed resistance against China.

But why has this armed struggle against the colonial rule of China been forgotten by Tibet? Is it because it goes against the non-violent stance that Tibet has taken against the Chinese occupation? Yes, but it’s not as simple as that. Sarin explains that the armed resistance was a very spontaneous response that began in the 1950s, with even monks coming to the forefront of the movement.

The CIA’s involvement did bring a certain secrecy to the movement, which only grew more as the resistance relocated to Nepal. This meant that a number of people within the Tibetan community were unaware that their brothers and friends had taken up arms against the Chinese aggression.

Had the resistance been successful, it might have gained a place in the country’s history. But because it ended with a surrender to the Nepalese army, with the killing of the Gyalo Wangdu, the resistance commander, Sarin says, "it was simpler to quietly forget about this episode.”

Through this exhibition, what the filmmaker duo hope to do is highlight the story of thousands of those who sacrificed their lives by taking up arms against the Tibetan occupation of China, and to draw inspiration from their lives and honour them.

Says Sarin, “By focusing on the historical realities of the early phase of China’s invasion of Tibet through the story of the armed resistance, we once again raise questions about the legitimacy of China's current occupation of Tibet and its implications for the larger region, especially concerning India’s current border problems.”

(Shadow Circus- A Personal Archive of Tibetan Resistance (1957–1974) is a project by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam in collaboration with Natasha Ginwala, showing at the Art Gallery, Kamaladevi Complex in India International Centre, New Delhi from 20 April to 1 May)

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    Published: 01 May 2022, 8:15 AM