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If the Tibetan Can’t Go to the Homeland…

By E.J. GRAFF (Prospect):
As some of you know, there is far more to the Tibetan diaspora than the Dalai Lama. More than 200,000 refugees are living, sometimes stateless, in other countries. Tenzin Dorjee, whom I’ve mentioned here before, is the director of Students for a Free Tibet, and one of the next generation of Tibetan leaders in exile. Last week, he wrote at the Huffington Post about an incredibly moving art project, conceived after activist and artist Tenzing Rigdol’s father died in exile longing to see his homeland one more time:

Rigdol was deeply affected by his father’s untimely death, and devastated by his own helplessness in fulfilling his father’s final wish. He could not stop agonizing over the idea that hundreds of other Tibetan exiles were going through the same denial of dignity, passing their final years in foreign lands….

Rigdol … smuggled 20,000 kilograms of native Tibetan soil into India and laid it on a platform six feet high, creating an installation unprecedented in art history. For three days, people crowded on to the installation to see, smell and touch this piece of their long-lost homeland. Hundreds of children born in exile stepped on Tibetan soil for the first time in their lives, while scores of elders separated from Tibet in their youth set foot on the soil, possibly for the last time….

For thousands of Tibetans in the small hill town [Dharamsala] that has been the capital of Tibetan diaspora since 1959, the installation created three magical days of reunion under the beautiful, rainless October sky. A group of people and their lost homeland suddenly found each other. Elders prostrated on the soil, monks prayed on it, children played marbles in it, and musicians turned the installation into a concert stage. Art trumped reality. Rigdol had finally fulfilled his father’s wish, a thousand times over.

On the morning of the final day, people were allowed to collect handfuls of soil to take home, in paper cups and improvised bags. In what turned into a genuinely interactive art performance, the soil disappeared over the next few hours, and the ground slowly became empty.

Tenzin Tsetan Choklay, whom Tenzin Dorjee calls one of the new wave of Tibetan filmmakers, captured the entire event—and has launched a Kickstarter project to turn it into a film.

About the Author: E.J. Graff writes on social-justice and human-rights issues, particularly discrimination and violence against women and children; marriage and family policy; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender lives. She is a resident scholar at the Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (Beacon Press, 1999, 2004).

Published Date: Wednesday, July 4th, 2012 | 09:28 AM

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