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Updated: January 7, 2010 19:36 IST

The monk with a camera

SHAILAJA TRIPATHI
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Nicholas Vreeland
Nicholas Vreeland

American Buddhist monk Nicholas Vreeland is showcasing his photographs to raise funds for the reconstruction of Rato Dratsang monastery.

Very few people are as lucky as Nicholas Vreeland, getting to channel their passion towards their conviction. Born with an innate sense of identifying a moment, strengthened further by an academic pursuit, Vreeland is putting his talent to use for the cause he has believed in for the past 25 years. The monk is trying to raise money to build Rato Dratsang monastery in Karnataka through the sale of his 20 photographs in the exhibition “Photos For Rato”.

14th Century monastery

Rato Dratsang monastery was founded in the 14th Century for studying Buddhist logic. In 1983, a few Rato monks fled to India to escape the Chinese invasion of Tibet. They built a two-storey building in Mundgod near Hubli in Karnataka and began to live there. From 12, the number of monks has increased to 120, fuelling the need for a bigger space.

Every month the centre for learning also receives scholar monks from Tibet, who stay in the monastery as guests. About four monks share a room and the temple is a temporary shelter under an asbestos roof. Now, the dream to expand the monastery to 66 monks' rooms, administration building, plus a kitchen and a dining area is being realised with the sale of pictures taken by Vreeland, who co-founded Rato Dratsang Foundation, over two decades ago.

“With the economic collapse in 2008, all our sponsors and funds disappeared and we thought of this idea,” says the Buddhist monk.

But the Swiss-born Vreeland is not a hobby photographer. A protégé of Henri Cartier-Bresson, he even went to NYU's film school and has photographed maharajas and Tibetan Rinpoches, has edited “An Open Heart” by the Dalai Lama, on the New York Times bestseller list. His life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama was hung as a billboard all over New York during the Buddhist spiritual leader's visit to the city in 2003.

“I picked up photography when I was 13, and it carried me through my school and it was because of this passion that I decided to join a film school. But I came to the monastery (Rato Dratsang) without a camera. My family later gave it to me,” recalls Nicholas, grandson of fashion icon Diana Vreeland and son of an American ambassador who also worked as an assistant to Irving Penn.

The important lesson he learnt from his myriad experiences, and probably from Buddhism, is abundantly at play here. Most of the images have been taken inside the monastery for he believes, “The more intimate a photographer is to his subject, the more profound his picture will be. So, I tried to take pictures in my room and didn't venture out as much though there are street pictures like a bull sitting against a film poster.”

Careful not to operate like a photo-journalist, Nicholas, says, he never tried to capture everything and anything. “I kept the camera locked in a box and slowly started doing portraits of the monks against the white wall which got beautiful sunlight. Then it became more frequent. But I only take pictures when I feel comfortable in an environment,” says Nicholas.

The side profile of a monk reading in his room, he feels, is very personal and not something a street photographer can click. “I was in the room talking to his teacher and clicked it. A street photographer will not have access to this world,” says Nicholas who is showcasing this collection in Chicago, Paris, London, Rome and Berlin to gather financial support. The photographs can be seen at www.dratsangfoundation.org where people can also give donations online.

(The exhibition will be on view at IIC annexe from January 13 to 18.)

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