The Man who Stole Tibet

June 27, 2018 By Thubten Samphel*

Studio 59: Dialogue Artists’ Residency lies beyond the bridge in Khanyara in the lush valley below the foothills of the Dhauladhar range. The man behind Studio 59 hopes to transform it into an academy for Tibetan and other artists from around the world, to serve as a retreat in which they could give undivided attention and expression to their own evocation of Tibet. He hopes the academy would serve as a solitary place for Tibetan artists to meditate on “what does it mean to be a Tibetan in this day and age” and use the medium of art to evoke their meditation.

Asked why he chose Dharamsala as a location for his arts academy, Tenzing Rigdol, a New Yorker, said “because India will soon be affluent” and will attract Tibetan talent around the world, a reverse brain drain of sorts to the hub of the exile Tibetan world. Already Studio 59 has six painters and writers in residence to paint and re-paint their vision of Tibet. Rigdol hopes that his academy will serve as an “oasis for young, promising Tibetan artists to talk about Tibet.”

Rigdol himself is an accomplished and versatile artist, expressing himself through painting, sculpture, drawing and other art forms. His art works have been exhibited in reputed museums and galleries around the world, including New York, London, Hong Kong and Beijing. His The Metamorphosis of Life sold for about $ 15,000 in London. Commenting on the quality of art pieces produced by Tibetan artists, Rigdol said, “I can proudly say that we can compare ourselves well with the best artists in the world.”

Asked when he decided to become an artist, Rigdol said, “We are artists ever since we are born. We are full of questions and curious about everything around us. Artists are like hermits meditating on the human condition” and for Tibetan artists “on Tibet’s present condition. Many people come to know about Tibet through the work of Tibetan artists.”

However, for Tibetan exiles Rigdol is best known for his smuggling of 20 tonnes of soil from Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city, to Dharamsala through Nepal in 2011. The soil was displayed on an open stage in Dharamsala. The members of the Tibetan community prostrated before their sacred soil and walked on it, a walk on a piece of smuggled soil from Tibet, which soon found a place on altars or as amulets around Tibetan necks.

Tenzin Rigdol sitting on the smuggled soil from Tibet

The whole operation was recorded in a film Bringing Tibet Home directed by Tenzin Tseten Choklay. It was released in 2013 at a film festival in Busan in South Korea where it became a sensation and was, according to Rigdol, “the most searched film in South Korea for a week.”

Rigdol remembered, “The highest Buddhist patriarch of South Korea entered the film screening dignified and measured as befitting his exalted status but was sobbing at the end of the film.”



*Thubten Samphel is the director of the Tibet Policy Institute, a research centre of the Central Tibetan Administration


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