Paula Sengupta’s works explore the consequences of displacement even as they delicately weave in traditional elements

“On 30 March 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet into exile in India. Since then, over a hundred-and-twenty thousand Tibetan refugees have followed their leader into exile, fleeing their homeland in an effort to practice and conserve the Tibetan way of life,” the introduction to artist Paula Sengupta’s work Into Exile on display at Apparao Galleries, says. The exhibit, a collection of installations, tackles the refugee issue while also posing several questions over the way things have turned out for the country and its people. The story of Pema Dhargyal, a 57-year-old who has left his family behind in Tibet and has come to India simply because he wanted to be close to the Dalai Lama, is detailed crisply at the exhibit, juxtaposed against traditional Tibetan wood carving. “He has left his entire family behind and has no communication with them, because in his village there are no communication facilities. They know he is well and here and he knows they are there,” says Paula dressed in traditional Tibetan attire at the launch of her exhibit.

There’s another installation featuring a story as told by refugees to the artist, about soldiers in blue uniform arriving to a peaceful village with a monkey and a dog. Paula has used a traditional Tibetan craft to illustrate this entire story. Across the room is another piece called Prayer Wheels. Here technology flirts freely with Tibetan craft traditions, and the result is stunning. A set of monastery-like prayer wheels in white revolve (the entire set-up runs on electricity), and is self-lit from the inside. It features the same soldier-monkey-dog story. “It was told to me by two refugees. It details how the Chinese soldiers came to their village,” she says.

“I saw the Tibetan way of life preserved in parts such as Ladakh and Spiti, but only when I went to Dharamshala did it all come together for me. I understood how a whole other country was functioning from here,” she says. Paula also wanted to understand why and how the Dalai Lama had captured the imagination of these people. “I wanted to know if it was the institution or if it was the Dalai Lama who drew them,” she muses.

Memories, memories...

Paula, who has a doctorate in the history of Indian printmaking from Visva Bharati, Santiniketan, also points out that she was able to work on this project on a deeper level because her family was from East Bengal (currently Bangladesh). “I was born and brought up in India. When I went to Bangladesh, I experienced a great sense of loss. I can see something similar here at work. Can people keep their culture alive just through memory?” she asks. In her statement about this exhibit Paula has further stated: “The Tibet plateau lies contiguous with the high altitude plateaus of the Indian and Nepal Himalayas, to which I am a frequent visitor. My interest in displaced societies, enforced migration, the retention of memory, and threatened identities (of which I myself am a victim due to the partition of Bengal in 1947) led me to investigate the Tibetan crisis.”

Into Exile is on till January 2 at Apparao Galleries.