Longings at Majnu Ka Tilla


It was a chance meeting with the Dalai Lama and his suggestion that as a photographer she does something to bring awareness to the Tibetan cause. However, when she started working on the Tibetan exile story, photographer Serena Chopra, whose new photo book Majnu Ka Tilla Diaries will be released on August 5, felt stuck and couldn’t find a new photographic language that spelt what it felt like to be a displaced community in exile.
Her initial work with the Tibetan community in India did not express her feelings about the subject of displacement. She felt stymied and dropped the project for a brief period. But then one day Chopra was inspired to visit Majnu Ka Tilla in Delhi, an old refugee colony haunt from her days as a Delhi University student more than two decades ago.
“I spent a day and a late night at the colony and I just knew that I had found the space to express myself. It was an intuitive sense of resonating with the environment. This had to happen for my ideas to flow and express themselves creatively,” she tells IANS.
Majnu Ka Tilla harbours a Tibetan community torn away from its roots, now reinventing its life amidst the chaos and uncertainty of being in exile.
“The narrow alleyways, bustling with untold stories drew me closer. Every narrow lane morphed into the humdrum of a market with street vendors, crafts, restaurants, hotels and cafes sprouting in every nook and cranny. The temple square was the glue that bound every life here. It was not only a place to pray but a marketplace, a meeting place and a playground for the children in the evening. The old and infirm settled into the rhythm of time passing to the resonance of thumbs rolling over prayer beads. I was inexorably drawn to their courage and resilience,” she adds.
Intentionally using the diary format in order to retain the intimacy and potency of a personal diary, she says the diary pages are the core and heart of the book. “The diary becomes a live object as it zooms in on the voice of the real person, unwittingly dragged into the whole situation of war and suffering.”
Believing that black and white as an art form does not project reality the way we see it with the human eye, the photographer says, “I believe it allows me to transform reality in my own fashion.”
Interestingly, Chopra does not work with digital cameras at all and prefers the meditative, slow process of a manual camera that uses film. Her process starts when she feels passionate about a subject and wants to talk about it and express herself through photographs.
“When I work on a project, I like to read literary works. I also journal and jot down my thoughts and ideas on the project. Finally, a body of work encompasses all these factors – gut, concern, depth of feeling, and yet it transcends them,” she says.
Stressing that it would be a positive step to take photography forward along with other art forms and have more of it as an integral part of the school curriculum, she feels that with the advent of social media platforms like Instagram, photography has grown in a multidimensional realm.
“That’s good. It provokes creativity and ease and is in sync with the modern need for speed and instant gratification. Whether these trends will find relevance or not is a moot point. Criteria limit artistic expression and excellence. It is more a question of expressing yourself with great individuality and originality,” concludes Chopra who is currently shooting a story on ancient forests using a large format studio camera. (IANS)