Today is Losar, the Tibetan New Year. Mention this to Dharamsala-based filmmaker and artist Tenzing Sonam, and he whispers, "It's supposed to be a day of celebration. But we have just been reminded that not only are we not allowed to carry on with our way of life, but also not express our deepest anguishes."
Sonam, along with his partner Ritu Sarin, was exhibiting their work "Last Words" (part of their much larger installation "Burning Against the Dying of Light") at the recently organised Dhaka Art Summit and was forced to cover it up after the Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, Ma Mingqiang, bullied the organisers to remove the works or face consequences.
The art work that disturbed the Chinese ambassador were letters drafted by Tibetan protestors just before they committed self-immolation against China's annexation of Tibet. Instead of removing the letters, Sarin and Sonam decided to cover them up with sheets of paper, something that had a greater impact.
"We understand the sensitivity of the Dhaka Art Summit and did not want a platform like that to come under pressure that could put it into serious trouble. We did not want to put its survival in jeopardy."
But this is not the first time his work has come under pressure from the Chinese government. When the couple's film "The Sun Behind the Clouds: Tibet's Struggle For Freedom" was being screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in the US in 2010, the Chinese consulate officials called up the festival director and asked for the film to be removed.
When this request was denied, the officials drove to the venue and "suddenly" the two Chinese films that were supposed to be shown at the festival were taken off, without even the Chinese film directors knowing about it.
"When China can exert that kind of a pressure in the US, what to say about Bangladesh? Just because it has become an economic and military superpower, they (Chinese leaders) think they can act with impunity anywhere in the world. Leave alone art, they dictate countries not to welcome the Dalai Lama," says Sonam.
Sonam insisted that what happened in Dhaka was just a symbol of intolerance that seemed to have spread across Asia and beyond.
"We don't want to see or hear the other person's viewpoint. Is this being modern? Is this growth? In fact, we had a great response to our exhibition in Dhaka where several people were unaware about the tragic lives of Tibetans. People were stunned and moved," he says.