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The monk who sold his photographs

Geneva-born photographer Nicholas Vreeland brings to the city 20 snapshots of his experiences as a monk in a Tibetan monastery for over 25 years

Photos of Rato is a 10 day-long exhibition that comes to the city after being shown in France, Italy and USA. The photographer Nicholas Vreeland is a Tibetan monk, who was the Dalai Lama's official photographer during his trip to the US in 1979 and has edited a book by the Dalai Lama. The grandson of Diana Vreeland (former editor of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue in New York) and a student of photographers Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, Nicholas will donate the proceeds from the exhibition to maintain the monastery Rato Dratsang.


A monk reading from the scriptures.

How did you get introduced to Buddhism?
My first introduction to India and Tibetan culture came in 1973 when I visited Sikkim. I then returned in 1979, this time as a photographer. I went to Dharamshala to take a series of pictures � including those of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. It was in that trip that I realised my true calling.

Your grandmother, the late Diana Vreeland was an iconic fashion figure of her times, yet you chose a radically different lifestyle. How did she deal with this?
She was very concerned about my spiritual inclinations because frankly, in Western culture, becoming a monk or nun is not the regular thing to do. So when I first shaved my head, and called her up to say so, she said, 'Oh Nicky, how could you have done that to me'? I told her, 'I didn't do it to you. I did it to me.' But when I met her later, she told me that it wasn't that bad. In fact in an article that I discovered later, she had been asked what she admired most in a person. Her reply was someone with a twinkle in his eye, like the Dalai Lama. I knew that she had come to accept my choice.

How does photography co-exist with your spiritual inclinations?
Photography has played a crucial role in introducing me to Buddhism. Not only did I get introduced to Buddhism because of my trip to India as a photographer, where I even took pictures of the Dalai Lama, I even got to study the religion from it. Someone had broken into my house and stolen all my cameras and with the insurance money I got I studied a Buddhist philosophy course in New York.
None of these pictures however, were taken for an exhibition. I did not want to document the life of a monk. In fact, I think of my photography as scattered poems. I would simply take my camera out sometimes and take pictures of things I found beautiful.
 
What was the idea behind the exhibition?
The monastery that I live in, Rato Dratsang (in Karnataka), has been in urgent need of renovation for a long time. It was first established as a monastery for a few monks, but over the years, the numbers have swelled. We started renovation in 2008, but because of the economic recession, many who had pledged funds backed out. That's when Martine Franck (a well-known photographer and wife of Henri Cartier-Bresson) suggested that I hold an exhibition of my photos.

You have taken the Dalai Lama's photographs on many occasions. Can you tell us, how your first experience was like?
This was in Dharamsala in 1979, when I was a young 25 year-old photographer. I was very nervous. The room was so dark that I had to use a tripod with an exposure of at least a minute. The Dalai Lama was sitting in a swivel chair and he would always move, before the minute was up. We finished rolls after rolls but couldn't get a good picture. And then he burst out laughing. All the tension was released and I requested him to stand up. The picture that resulted was perfect; it is one of my favourites.

The photos, which will be on exhibition in ICIA House, Kala Ghoda, can be purchased from the venue, as well as the website www.ratodratsangfoundation.org

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