The last time Serena Chopra visited Merak, a small village in North-Eastern Bhutan, close to the Arunachal border, a group of CRPF soldiers from India were laying down the wires for the first telephone that would be set up in the village. Chopra knew the village would never be the same again. “You put a telephone in a place where there hasn’t been one, and you will see how everything changes,” she says.
For long, longer than you may remember, the idea of the Indian subcontinent has obscured the macro-cosmic existence of that very idea in reality. That the country is surrounded by a number of other, smaller nations, with a culture, though similar, but contrasting in most places has perhaps more to do with a kaleidoscopic approach to viewing this corner of the world, misrepresented or under-explored at each break in the light. The uniform idea of India serves as an arching reference to everything middle-Asian, the polemic injustice of which is probably, too improper and narrow to articulate to the average listener or reader. But let us still give it a try.
My idea of Bhutan rarely ever took off of the maps that I labelled in Geography classes in school to get marks, or was limited to the responses to questions that embodied middle-age clasping resentment like "Is there a country where an average Indian could be rich?” Someone once told me Bhutan does not even have a theatre, or has just one. All of these and many more have for years restricted my image of the country to an extension of my own, that operatic branch that knocks on windows and seems to grow no leaves — until I saw Serena Chopra’s Bhutan Echoes.
Chopra’s two leading interests as she was graduating through college were journalism and photography. And with them she wanted to stick, but for the paltry salaries that both professions offered. “I had a thing for writing and photography from an early age. But out of college, the money wasn’t good. I couldn’t afford much. I think it was a Rs 1,000 salary that I got first,” Serena says as we talk at her house in 4 Jorbagh.
Chopra, therefore, moved into textile and design, and eventually set up her own business after getting married — before she got back to her camera during the '90s. “Eventually the business became so big that I couldn’t get out of it. I did though still try and do whatever I could, which even included going to an evening photo school, a small lab that existed out of a third floor apartment in Bhogal,” she says.
Chopra, in the midst of her twinning life-roles, went to Bhutan in 1996 where she took out a Hasselblad camera and fell in love with photography all over again. By 2003, she decided to close down her business altogether and take the leap she had for years now been planning.
Thus began her 12-year romance with Bhutan, the result of which is now public knowledge in the form of a book and now an upcoming exhibition.
“The first five years are when I reinvented myself as much as I found myself,” she says. But Chopra did not just capture table-topping landscapes or fermented identities sparkling in the eyes of tribals torn from civilisation by time, which should be declared as a passé approach to documenting or even photographing. Chopra’s photographs capture a country in transition, not without its contrasts, on the inside evolving with each passing moment, no less at a time when the country itself underwent monumental change: In March 2008 Bhutan became the world’s youngest democracy.
Which also raises the question that at the heights of a seismic political event like the one mentioned, did she at any time stutter in her objective gaze? “I was very sure that I was there as an artist. I have lots of photographs of judges and the Prime Minister that I never used, probably because I never even knew at that point that this would go on to be a book and eventually, an exhibition. I was just there doing what I wanted to do,” Chopra says.
The simplicity of Chopra’s approach is starkly clear in her photographs. One of the most striking observations that can be made about her photographs is, though they are not presented in any sort of linearity, and were not approached with a sense of establishing any in mind, they still register a progression in time. These are photos that if they were pinned randomly to a board, would still find a way of crawling next to each other to establish some sort of context.
The image of a Yak herder alongside a couple of gentleman playing billiards in Thimpu, is a contextual anagram that is incomplete in some sense, without the other photograph. Yet you could replace either and a new duality might emerge. “I didn’t just want to look at the remote corners of the country. I wanted to look at how the city (Thimpu) was transforming as well. So I went to the only two discotheques that existed at the time in Thimpu, as much as I visited the remote areas. Because the young, who were going to bring in the changes were the ones I wanted to get a sense of,” she says.
Recently, Bhutan has been the subject of some speculation and study for its ideational summary to running a country in the form of Gross National Happiness. In a time when nations around the world are beginning to feel stifled by the dogmatic authority of economy as a factor that defines all other factors of governance, a small country’s emphasis on factors like human satisfaction and happiness as a way of governance can push a fair number of troubled souls over the edge. But things are changing.
“Unlike us, Bhutan was always this place where the people were still very comfortable in their cultural identity, rooted in their ideals. There used to be 65 percent forest cover at a time and a pair of jeans would have been rare to find on a woman. But they were still modern in their approach to many things, and comfortable in it. When I visit now, I see things have started to change. Thimpu has become a concrete jungle like any other city in the world, and the remote towns that were previously untouched by modernisation are now catching up,” Chopra says.
The concurrence of world’s expansion within itself in terms of connectivity and the way people have proceeded to utilising it to perform surgeries on land, is something that Bhutan may no longer be able to keep out or avoid. In that sense it may go the India way and unfortunately, eventually drift with the larger cosmopolitan sub-continental shift. For such a scenario, Chopra’s work might stand as a testament of a time in history, as even a map to a place and a culture that decades from now may even cease to exist, perhaps, even against its own will. Because the roads that once went into Bhutan may no longer return, but Chopra has walked them all, and before it’s too late, we should too, through her work or on our own.
‘Bhutan Diaries’ will be exhibiting in Kolkata (26 Sep-7 Oct) after which it will move to Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai, courtesy Tasveer.