Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin have been documenting the Tibetan experience for almost four decades. Through their films, which include short and long fiction and non-fiction, they have explored nuances of Tibetan identity, culture, politics and the ongoing struggle for freedom. Their many years of work inform Shadow Circus: A Personal Archive Of Tibetan Resistance (1957–1974), an exhibition showing at Experimenter in Mumbai.
The Shadow Circus was also the title of a documentary the duo made in 1985, about a CIA-sponsored mission to paratroop resistance fighters into China-occupied Tibet. Sonam’s father, Lhamo Tsering, was one of these fighters. The multimedia exhibition draws on his “personal archive of photographs, documents, letters, and maps of the secret operations that he was involved in”, including poignant details like the artwork of homesick Tibetans during their training.
The exhibition, curated by Natasha Ginwala and Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, was first shown at SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin, Germany, in February 2019 as part of the 14th Forum Expanded, 69th Berlinale. It showed last year at the India International Centre, Delhi, and the Kochi Muziris Biennale. On email, Sonam speaks about the project’s long gestation, calling it “an ongoing act of reinvention”. Edited excerpts:
We first started researching this subject in the early 1990s with the idea of making a documentary film. While we were researching and then shooting the film, we realised that many of the people we were meeting were old and this was our only chance to do in-depth video recordings of their stories. At that time, we did not really have any idea that one day, all this material would come together in the form of an exhibition. Later, when my father passed away and his archive came into our custody, we realised the importance of bringing this material to the attention of the larger world. This is how the idea of the multimedia exhibition came about.
Our conversations with my father when he was alive were to find out more about the resistance. He knew that we were working on a documentary and, in fact, was able to see the final film before he passed away. But we never had any inkling then that we would one day be doing an archive-based exhibition project.
The documentary film that we made is still very relevant. Most people, including the younger generation of Tibetans, still have no idea about the details of resistance and the sacrifice that so many Tibetans made for their country. And because the Tibetan movement is seen primarily through the lens of non-violence and compassion, this chapter in Tibetan history is often neglected. This makes it all the more important to keep presenting the documentary, albeit in a more contemporary context. The exhibition, Shadow Circus, hopefully does that.
Since the exhibition is based so much around the archives that my father collected, we felt it was important to present it through a personal perspective. By weaving in some of my own recollections of my father when I was growing up, we wanted to provide a more human context through which to tell the larger historical story of a political struggle.
We have known Natasha for many years and have worked together on some other projects, including the multimedia exhibition Burning Against The Dying Of The Light, which was shown as part of Contour Biennale 2017 in Belgium, that she curated. Natasha was instrumental in helping us to conceptualise the project as an archive-based exhibition. Through her, we met Bonaventure and we worked closely together in framing the outlines of the first iteration of Shadow Circus, which was presented at SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin. Coming from a film background, we had little experience of contemporary exhibition-making and Natasha and Bonaventure’s experience in this field was hugely helpful in forcing us to look at the archive material in a new light.
We do not see the exhibition as a summing up of the work we have been doing on the subject over the years as it is very much an ongoing and open-ended project. We continue to find new material related to the subject as more information, especially in America, becomes declassified. The exhibition itself is constantly reinventing itself, depending on where it is showing and in which context.
Shadow Circus is on at Experimenter in Mumbai till 26 August; 10.30am-6.30pm (closed on Sundays and Mondays).