Photographing the Humans of Delhi’s ‘Little Tibet’

Photographer Serena Chopra documents the lives of the refugee residents of Majnu-ka-Tilla, a cultural cauldron that many know only as an offbeat curiosity and café street.

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In this photo from 2009, Majnu-ka-Tilla resident Namla Thar kneads dough to make bread that would later sell in the temple square. Photo by: Serena Chopra

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Delhi’s own little Tibet, Majnu-ka-Tilla is among the city’s many refugee settlements, and arguably the most popular of them all. The joints that operate at “M.K.T.”—upmarket cafés serving tsampa smoothies, cafés with ‘authentic’ Himalayan grub that can give Bir and Dharamkot a run for their money, rooftop cafés that overlook Signature Bridge even through the thickest smog—are to be found nowhere else in the capital. (That is part of the reason the Delhi government plans to develop the settlement into one of its two mega food hubs.) Every day, wide-eyed sightseers, easily charmed young men and women, vloggers and food documentarians make their way down the prayer flag-festooned foot over bridge and enter an arched gateway, as hawkers selling la phing come into view. At the end of the street, trinkets associated with Tibetan culture and ceramicware glint in the distance.

This is hardly the Majnu-ka-Tilla that photographer Serena Chopra knew when she first visited the colony as a college student enrolled at Delhi University, in the 1970s. “Our search for momos and dzi-bead jewellery often took us to Majnu ka Tilla, located not far from the university campus… Out of small shacks, they sold street food that suited our student budget,” she writes in the preface to her new photobook Majnu ka Tilla Diaries.

 

Photographing The Humans Of Majnu Ka Tilla

A mother and her child with all their belongings at Majnu-ka-Tilla, 2012. Photo by: Serena Chopra

Photographing The Humans Of Majnu Ka Tilla

A morning assembly at the renovated Tibetan school in the locality, 2015. Photo by: Serena Chopra

 

Years after those first forays into the locality, Serena was stunned to see the quarter’s almost unbelievable transformation. “[It] stunned me. The shacks had been transformed into a high-rise slum, a hub for every Tibetan coming from anywhere in or out of the country.” Yet more unexpected was the lived reality of its residents, who had remained just as disenfranchised, exiled and harried trying to shoulder the preservation of their religion, culture and language. Majnu-ka-Tilla had remained a temporary lodging; home was still quite far away.

Between 2007 and 2015, the multi-hyphenate artist set about creating an archive of black-and-white photographs produced on film and written testimonies of its residents, who fled to India after the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 and the community’s exodus soon after. The migrants slowly settled around different parts of India, forming a major refugee settlement in this pocket of northern Delhi and going on with their lives even as the community sought a free Tibet themselves. Chopra recently released Majnu-ka-Tilla Diaries: a crystallisation of her work in the form of a journal-style photobook. We got in touch with Chopra to find out more about her book and the subject that forms the basis for it. Edited excerpts from the interview:

 

What are some of your most memorable experiences of making the photographs in Majnu ka Tilla Diaries and the conception of this photobook? 

Night time at Majnu ka Tilla was special. It was when all the shoppers and visitors had gone home and the colony came alive with the resident Tibetan community. Hanging out in the temple square with my friend Tenzin Norsang, mingling with Tibetans young and old, gave me opportunities and insights that were unexpected and serendipitous. The work evolved organically. With the passage of time, photographs and hand-written diary entries emerged that were created within precious stolen moments of time between us. These were quiet moments of intimacy. A book is the only way I could dignify these traumatic experiences of displacement, their lives at present and their yearning to belong.

 

Can you share with us one specific photograph that you cherish and that has a story behind its making that you would really want to share with the world? 

I had the opportunity to acquaint myself with and photograph four generations of a family dining on a rooftop in their makeshift kitchen. Under the plastic sheet that served as shelter, the aroma of the food that was being cooked and the tastes of home drifted down to the baby being fed. A box of cornflakes is in the mother’s hands and her child is trying to grab some. The grandmother sits in quiet grace and the rest of the family groups together to enjoy this family time.

The photograph I took that day has those moments firmly etched in my mind even after all these years. Many of these residents still have families living across the border. Perhaps the element of hope of being reunited with family and ancestral land is integral to keeping a community afloat as they are forced to attend to survival issues and bettering the lives of their children. 

 

Photographing The Humans Of Majnu Ka Tilla

Four generations of a refugee Tibetan family in Majnu-ka-Tilla, cook and dine at their terrace, temporarily covered with a plastic sheet, 2007. Photo by: Serena Chopra

 

What kind of travel did you have to undertake to bring this project to fruition? 

My first year was spent around McLeodganj and Dharamshala, which is where I met my Tibetan friend Thar (Tenzin Thardoe) who accompanied me to many Tibetan settlements in Himachal Pradesh. I spent a fair amount of time at Bir and Chauntra. However, it was only when I revisited Majnu ka Tilla in 2007 after more than 37 years, that I intuitively knew that I had found the space to express myself and tell their story.

 

You’ve previously documented displaced people, lives torn apart by the Partition and so on. What’s it about exile and rootlessness that draws you? 

Yes, my mother and her entire family are from Pakistan. My sister was born in Pakistan. I grew up in the aftermath of those days, listening to horrific accounts of the partition of India and Pakistan; the violence that made enemies of erstwhile friends; the mass exodus, and the courage that’s needed to reinvent your life and cultural identity. My documentation hopefully bears testimony to the tragic consequences and trauma of displacement.

 

Photographing The Humans Of Majnu Ka Tilla

Polaroid snapshots accompanied by short ‘autobiographies’ of the people in the frame. Right: The diary-style cover of the photo book. Photos courtesy: Serena Chopra

 

As someone who’s witnessed closely the lived realities of Majnu-ka-Tilla’s community and assiduously recorded their struggles, what do you think people who visit here or document it in any form, miss about the place and its residents? 

I think what’s often missed is the story behind the story. The true struggle of waking up to a reality every morning that is underpinned by their wayward dreams of a Free Tibet one day.

 

Also Read | Tibet: Amazing Grace in an Ancient Land

 

To read more stories on travel, cities, food, nature, and adventure, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

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  • Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.

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