The CIA’s involvement in the Tibetan resistance started in 1956, at the height of the Cold War. Codenamed STCIRCUS, it was one of the CIA’s longest running covert operations until it was abruptly abandoned in the late 1960s when US foreign policy pivoted to find accommodation with China. The resistance collapsed in 1974 when its last stronghold in the mountainous kingdom of Mustang on the Nepal-Tibet border was shut down by the Nepalese army. This chapter of recent Tibetan history has been largely forgotten, partly due to its clandestine nature and partly as an instinctive act of omission on the part of official Tibetan narratives, which, from the 1970s onwards, sought to highlight the essentially non-violent nature of the freedom struggle.
In the early 1990s, filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam started to research this story for a documentary film. They were inspired by Tenzing’s father, the late Lhamo Tsering, one of the leaders of the resistance and the key liaison between the Tibetans and the CIA. As an archivist and mapmaker, Lhamo Tsering recognised from the beginning, the vital importance of maintaining a record of the resistance in order to guard against its erasure from historic memory. Along with the guerrilla fighters whose activities he oversaw, he chronicled the struggle as a daily reality in the hostile geography of Mustang, photographing everything from training procedures to communal exchanges and religious festivities. These photographs, along with documents, letters and maps that he collected over the years proved indispensable when, in his later years, he wrote a monumental eight-volume history of the resistance.
The exhibition, Shadow Circus, is an attempt to unshackle and shed light on what anthropologist and historian Carole McGranahan calls, “arrested histories of the Tibetan resistance army”. It re-evaluates Lhamo Tsering’s personal archives in conjunction with the audio-visual material that Ritu and Tenzing gathered over the years, and includes a re-edited version of their 1998 documentary – The Shadow Circus – to create a more complete and complex mosaic of this still largely unknown story. A hand-drawn guerrilla training manual in Tibetan by an unknown resistance artist that Lhamo Tsering saved becomes a vital entry point into choreographing this archival ensemble. The Cold War epoch is navigated via a personal journey that transcends the calculated alliances of geopolitical power blocs and sheds light on the human dimension of intelligence gathering, guerrilla warfare and clandestine resistance deployed in the service of an unfinished freedom struggle that continues to resonate today.
- Ritu Sarin, Tenzing Sonam, and Natasha Ginwala'