Photo exhibition: Bhutan in early 2000s - a scenic country on the cusp of change | art and culture | Hindustan Times
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Photo exhibition: Bhutan in early 2000s - a scenic country on the cusp of change

A collection of pictures offers rare and unseen glimpses of the Dragon Kingdom

art and culture Updated: May 05, 2017 20:46 IST
Poonam Saxena
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Sonam Wangdi (standing) and members of his family in Sakteng valley, 2004. (photo courtesy: sERENA chopra)

When there is too much misery and distress in the world, said the 8th century Buddhist master Padmasambhav, you can find refuge in beyuls -- mystical sanctuaries hidden deep in the snow-tipped Himalayas. These are sacred valleys, Paradise-like places – and Bhutan is supposed to have many of them.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone even remotely familiar with the tiny landlocked country of high mountains, fast-flowing rivers, Alpine meadows and thick forests, invariably described as a kind of Shangri-la or fairyland. It’s not difficult to imagine such spiritual sanctuaries concealed within Bhutan’s pristine, uncorrupted beauty.

The picturesque kingdom, also known as The Land of the Thunder Dragon, cast its spell on a Delhi businesswoman, Serena Chopra, more than 15 years ago – just as it has on travellers through the centuries. It allowed her to “reinvent” herself and rediscover her first love, photography. Though she had studied journalism, Serena took up a job in PR (the money was better), and eventually found herself running a home furnishings export business.

Till she went to Bhutan on a trekking holiday in 2002 with 16 other Indians and 40 horses. The trek ended in a mess because the horses ran away and one of the children in the group fell sick. But Bhutan had spun its misty spell on her. In no time, Serena was back. The immediate trigger was that she had just bought a Hasselblad medium format camera and wanted to try it out. “I love black and white pictures and I loved the challenge of the Hasselblad, because it had only 12 negatives in one roll, so each photograph had to count,” she recalls.

But she probably hadn’t bargained for the fact that she would spend five years travelling through the country taking pictures. This was the early 2000s, when Bhutan was still relatively disconnected from the outside world. The country opened its doors to visitors only in 1974; by the end of the Nineties, the number of tourists was just a little over 7,000. (By 2013, the Bhutan Tourism Council estimates the number went up to 120,000).

Photographer Serena Chopra is exhibiting her photographic works at Bikaner House, New Delhi. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

Serena was lucky to have captured glimpses of a country on the cusp of change: from the rapidly modernizing capital city of Thimphu to the remote, wild and beautiful Merak region in the east, where tourists were allowed in as late as 2012.

When Serena went to Thimphu in the early 2000s, the population was a little over 79,000. (Today it has crossed a lakh.) It was still a sleepy, quiet little town. “Back then, there was just one disco,” recalls Serena. “I went there and suddenly saw all the Bhutanese boys and girls in their traditional wear – the boys in ghos and the girls in their kiras – get up and start dancing!” In Merak, she photographed the Brokpas, a semi-nomadic tribe, doing the fabled Yak Cham dance in praise of the yak lord, wearing their traditional costumes, headgear and impressive masks. “There is a beautiful legend behind the dance,” says Serena. “Bhutan is full of myths, every rock has a story to it.”

In the beginning, she never thought of exhibiting the photographs or putting them in a book, she says. “That would have been very egotistical of me. I was not intellectualizing it in any way. I was honestly just rejuvenating myself.” But she finally did bring out a lush, heavy 360-page coffee table book called The Ancients in 2015. She exhibited her black-and-white pictures in 2007, first in New York, then in Thimphu, Delhi and other cities. Her current exhibition Bhutan Echoes, which opened in Delhi’s Bikaner House yesterday, and is presented by the pan-Indian gallery Tasveer, is really a revival. “When you do a body of work, you don’t tuck it away, you show it again,” says Serena. “You can look back historically at something.”

Those years of intense travel led to a deep relationship with Bhutan; from an observer, Serena became a participant. She now returns for weddings, funerals, to see her friends. “The country became part of my life,” she says. But today when she goes back, she has mixed feelings: “Progress has its own downside and that is visible in a subtle fashion. The country is still very beautiful but now the rivers are being dammed, the houses no longer have thatched roofs…I treasure the old memories I have.”

What: Bhutan Echoes – Exhibition of photographs by Serena Chopra, presented by Tasveer

Where: Bikaner House, Pandara Road, Pandara Flats, India Gate, New Delhi

When: 6 to 14 May, 2017, 10.30am to 6.30pm

Nearest Metro station: Khan market