Vamsi Krishna | Interview

In 2006 Vamsi Krishna saved enough money to buy a film SLR. Since then his photography has taken a route most follow. In 2009 it turned into somewhat of a professional hobby, where he documented an “underground metal concert” in a now-defunct concert venue.

“From that point on, I continued chronicling music concerts in the city for over the next seven years. Two of my photographs shot during this period were featured in The Rolling Stone India, in 2014 and 2017, and several others in national newspapers.”

Drawn to art for as long as he could remember, Krishna used to sketch and paint a great deal when he was younger. Now, besides art and music, photography has become another “channel of expression” for himself. Recently Krishna travelled to Bylakuppe, India where he and his family would often visit the most popular spots, having visited the area several times over the last fifteen years. 

“…the humungous Namdroling Monastery housing the largest statue of The Buddha in the settlement, and the commercial complex opposite the temple where tourists can buy Tibetan artefacts like statuettes of The Buddha, incense sticks, prayer beads, and others.” In January this year, however, Krishna believed it was time to explore “beyond the usual”. He drove to Bylakuppe alone. 

A restaurant owned by a second-generation Tibetan family

Bylakuppe is the second largest Tibetan settlement outside Tibet. Located west of the Mysore district in Karnataka, Bylakuppe is approximately 10km2 (4sq mi) and sits at roughly 1,024m (3,360ft). In 1960 the Government of Mysore (what would become Karnataka) alloted 12km2 and the first Tibetan exile settlement Lungsung Samdupling, came into existence. 

“It is one among the 58 Tibetan communities spread across India, Nepal, and Bhutan. The settlement is composed of two large camps – Lugsum Samdupling, established in 1961, and Dickyi Larsoe, established in 1969 – colloquially known as The Old Camp and The New Camp respectively. Each camp is a collection of villages – 7 in the Old Camp, and 16 in the New Camp. 

“Central to each village is a temple complex which contains the main temple with a statue of The Buddha and other deities, stupas – tall, cylindrical structures containing Buddhist relics, prayer wheels of various sizes, hostels for monks, a library, a kitchen, and a courtyard for social gatherings, all of these decorated with innumerable prayer flags.”

Senior citizens at a social gathering in the portico of a temple located in
the Old Camp

“The roads in the residential areas are small and narrow, and barely enough to accommodate one car at a time, and lined with houses on either side. The refugees were allotted adobe houses when the settlement was founded, however as families grew over the years, they rebuilt them into multi-storey buildings with modern amenities. Very few of the old adobe houses still remain, unoccupied and dilapidated. While Tibetan life is mainly associated with Temple related activities, several Tibetans run businesses, grow crops, and do regular day jobs. Tourism is another major source of revenue for the settlement. 

“…It is a replica of (my understanding of) Tibet in many ways – chiefly the architecture, lifestyle, and cuisine. The community is currently in its third generation, and it continues to grow and thrive in this home-away-from-home.”

An old monk reading a Tibetan news magazine

“The Tibetan Buddhist colour palette consists of yellow, red, green, white, and blue, each representing the primal elements earth, fire, water, wind, and space respectively. Each of the elements, in turn, are symbolic of human transformation from the earthly to the divine. 

“Red – the fire element – represents the transformation of attachment into the wisdom of discernment. Hence Red is the colour of monasticism, whose central tenet is non-attachment to worldly pleasures. Similarly blue – the space element – represents the transformation of anger into wisdom, and so on.”

When Krishna points the camera at local residents first they respond with curiosity, then suspicion. A photographer who is documenting the unknown, forbidden or rarely travelled places needs to be aware of cultural norms, respect local laws and understand the objection residents may have when a camera is pointed towards them. With understanding, respect and consideration for a town and its people documentary photographers can photograph moments of sometimes extreme vulnerability and innocence. 

“I work from my parents’ home in Mysore, in near-isolation. As a result, I am constantly working on bringing to life as many of my ideas as possible. Creating is, for the lack of a better term, catharsis.”

“I believe that the smallest things tell the biggest stories, and in some cases, hint at something big without actually revealing it. The picture that represents me best, from the Bylakuppe series, is the one of the grave of a Chinese man. I have not be able to find his history, and all I know about him is whatever is written on his epitaph.”