In 1983, the few monks able to escape from Rato Dratsang—a Tibetan monastery founded in the 14th century that was destroyed by the Chinese in 1959—constructed a two-storey building in Mundgod in Karnataka. Over the years, they were joined by monks from north India, Bhutan, Nepal, Taiwan and the US. While this brought different perspectives to the Rato monks’ study of Buddhist logic, it also resulted in cramped quarters for the growing community of over 100 monks.
Stolen moments: Vreeland’s Gen Pagdo teaching Lama Chunchun (top); and Man and dog in Nandigaddi. Photographs Courtesy Nicholas Vreeland
Some years ago, the monks decided to reconstruct the monastery to accommodate their expanding numbers. And when their sponsors pulled out in early 2009 because of the recession, they started producing bags, bedspreads, pillows and tablecloths to meet the $950,000 (approx Rs4.38 crore) target for the renovation and reconstruction of their monastery—one of the few Tibetan government monasteries with the Dalai Lama at its head.
Nicholas Vreeland, a Geneva-born photographer who has been part of the Rato monastery since 1985, realized that even prolific sales of these household essentials would take a long time to give the monks a home. So, as part of an ingenious initiative, Vreeland has been hosting exhibitions of photographs taken during his years of monastic life to help the Rato Dratsang Foundation. And so far, fund-raising sales in France, Italy and the US have helped the foundation meet around 80% of its targets. There are more shows to come: An exhibition in New Delhi is slated for the coming week, followed by tentative ones in Mumbai and Bangalore over the next few months.
The son of an American ambassador, Vreeland has lived in Germany, Morocco, Italy and Paris. He studied film at New York University before settling down with an old love—photography. He was introduced to the art form at an early age by his grandmother, Diana Vreeland, a legendary figure in fashion, and editor of Vogue in the 1960s. In his early years as a photographer, Vreeland has been an assistant to trailblazing American photography icons such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.
He has a sublime story that links his photography with his spirituality. While he was still a professional photographer in the early 1980s, all his equipment was stolen from his New York apartment. To feed his growing interest in Buddhism, he used this hefty insurance money to fund Buddhist philosophy courses at New York’s Tibet Center, where he studied the teachings of Khyongla Rato Rinpoche.
And now, 25 years later, photography is paying off again. Vreeland was prodded by his late mentor Henri Cartier-Bresson’s wife, Martine Franck, to sift through old photos for this initiative. “It was her idea entirely,” he says modestly. Franck also urged Vreeland to seek the expertise of the eminent French photography curator Robert Delpire to help him streamline his vast repertoire of images. Delpire selected the 20 best and the resulting Photos for Rato exhibition contains signed and numbered limited editions of each. Prints are available in three sizes on silver gelatin paper, priced at $1,000, $1,500 and $5,000.
Known to his friends as “Nicky”, Vreeland presently splits his time between The Tibet Center in New York, where he has been the director since 1998, and the Rato Dratsang in India. He holds the Ser Tri Geshe degree (doctorate of divinity), and is one of only three Westerners to achieve this honour.
The Photos for Rato collection shows life inside and around the Rato monastery. There are street scenes, landscapes, portraits of Rato monks and even an image of the Dalai Lama. Speaking over the phone from Bodh Gaya where Vreeland was travelling earlier this week, he said the photographs were not meant as images taken from the vantage point of an insider but as “little poems and visual scribbles” from his life as a monk.
“When I moved to the Rato monastery, my brother gifted me a camera because it had been such an important part of my earlier life,” says Vreeland. At the monastery, however, Vreeland kept the camera locked up, taking it out only once in a while for a few images and placing it back in a trunk. The images in the exhibition have been taken during these stolen moments and are not a photojournalistic account of monk life, he iterates. There’s another anecdote: “Once, when a photographer was at work in the monastery precincts,” recalls Vreeland, “I thought how fortunate I was for not recording monastic life but actually living it.”
Evidently, life is beatific for the monk who sold his photographs.
Photos for Rato will be on exhibit at the India International Centre Annex in New Delhi from 13-18 January. For more on how to contribute to Rato’s reconstruction funds and to view Vreeland’s photographs, visit www.ratodratsangfoundation.org