'The Majnu Ka Tilla Diaries' Reveals Tibetan Empowerment in India

Photographer Serena Chopra's black and white images of the Tibetan colony in Delhi are an intimate and empathetic peek into the refugees' struggle for identity.

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The digital route taken by photography today has led to people forgetting the existence of film, a medium that called for much patience from photographers due to the length of time between taking the image and producing it as a viewable photograph.

But Serena Chopra has used film to capture the simple subject of the Tibetan refugees living in Majnu Ka Tilla, North Delhi, and released the photographs thus produced in the form of a book. The colony is on the periphery of the Yamuna river, encircled by stinking drain waters and the Ring Road and close to the Inter-State Bus Terminus (popularly known as Kashmiri Gate ISBT).

Most of the people in Majnu Ka Tilla are Tibetans. Many of them escaped the arrival of China’s Red Army in their country with their lives and not much else. Living in India as refugees since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru, the older generations of this colony have not applied for Indian citizenship because, while this may be their sanctuary, it is not their home. Indeed, from the moment they arrived in India, they have been involved in the ‘Free Tibet’ campaign that demands the return to Tibetans of their land from China.

The Majnu Ka Tilla Diaries is not an expensive coffee table tome. Rather it is small, square-ish and looks like a journal. With 123 matt finished pages and photo plates, the images of the people Serena captured connect directly with readers.

From Serena Chopra’s book.

“The intimacy of the written word in a personal diary format has always appealed to me as a mode of personal expression,” says Chopra, explaining why she chose this format for her book. “The Majnu Ka Tilla Diaries emerged like imagined excerpts from the diaries of this displaced community of refugees who struggle to survive here.”

Chopra’s book includes a few pages from the diaries of some of the individuals she photographed. These handwritten pages tell of the writers’ struggles against the mammoth Chinese occupation of their country.

Vision of understanding

Photography is a tool that gives the unheard a voice, especially with regard to struggle, conflict and identity. Serena has used her art skilfully to depict the lives of the ordinary Tibetans who live in a small area of Delhi mostly known only to university students who treat it as a place to hang out and eat.

“The more than half a century that the Tibetan diaspora have lived and thrived here, creating cultural coherence in a foreign land, has been noteworthy,” says Chopra. “I was struck by the human complexities of those who live in exile. The dream of going home to Tibet is a faraway one. Yet that’s what seems to hold them back from actively seeking citizenship after more than 60 years of exile. The reality and dreams of the second and third generations after the exodus, however, shift the status quo. Their needs for identity and security cannot remain the same as they establish a new dual identity.”

From Serena Chopra’s book.

With the growing hegemony of China in the world, Chopra displays Tibetan empowerment through her photographs.

“Art and words don’t know borders. Images and text are subliminal and powerful sensitisers, sometimes making meaningful inroads into our understanding,” she says.

Inside the colony

Serena first came across Majnu ka Tilla as a University of Delhi student in the 1970s. But she worked on this book between 2007-2015. Though there are several Tibetan settlements around the country, Chopra focused on Majnu Ka Tilla because, “It seemed to me to be truly representative of the Tibetan refugee situation in and around India.”

The book uses images of the surroundings and the people to define the small colony and the struggle of those who inhabit it. Chopra used a Hassalblad 120mm format camera and black and white film to portray the ideas of the lives within the colony. While the images display an intimacy with and empathy for the struggling and growing community that stands firm against China’s global power, the book is also about the everyday lives of the people in this colony.

Refugees from Tibet have been welcomed in India since Jawaharlal Nehru’s years as India’s first prime minister. The young Dalai Lama was permitted to grow up in exile in India and many Tibetan refugees settled in McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh, Bylakuppe in Karnataka and the colony of Majnu Ka Tilla in New Delhi.

China has never been happy with India’s policy towards Tibetan refugees, which allows the Tibetans to fight for their rights from India. So far, however, India has stood by the refugees from Tibet.