The Bhutan Ex­hi­bi­tion – Hint to Hap­pi­ness

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - A rare glimpse into the art and cul­ture of one of the world’s most in­trigu­ing coun­tries.

With 19.73 mil­lion for­eign vis­i­tors last year alone, Ja­pan’s tourism in­dus­try has never been stronger, and these fig­ures are set to rise in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics. An in­creas­ing num­ber of tourists, how­ever, isn’t al­ways a good thing. Just this May, Koh Tachai – an is­land off the west coast of Thai­land – was of­fi­cially closed to tourists for fears of ir­re­versible dam­age to the is­land’s coral and ecosys­tem. As far as tourism goes, there is a fine line be­tween want­ing to pro­mote your coun­try, and ru­in­ing it in the process. One coun­try that has al­ways been acutely aware of the very real threat of tourism to its cul­ture and en­vi­ron­ment is the King­dom of Bhutan – a land­locked nation at the eastern end of the Hi­malayas bor­der­ing both China and In­dia. By plac­ing cer­tain re­stric­tions on how you travel to the coun­try, it man­ages to main­tain its cul­tural in­tegrity – en­sur­ing tourists get to see the real Bhutan, not a di­luted ver­sion pack­aged and sold for the mass mar­ket. Bhutan is firmly rooted off the back­packer trail, en­sur­ing that only the most en­thu­si­as­tic and de­ter­mined trav­ellers ac­tu­ally visit. (Vis­i­tors must ei­ther be guests of the govern­ment or on an ap­proved travel pro­gramme.) Given the lim­ited num­ber of peo­ple who have been able to ex­pe­ri­ence Bhutan for them­selves, the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ueno Royal Mu­seum makes a con­certed ef­fort to ed­u­cate about the coun­try’s vi­brant cul­tural his­tory whilst cel­e­brat­ing 30 years of diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween Ja­pan and the Bhutan. Aptly titled The Bhutan Ex­hi­bi­tion – Hint to Hap­pi­ness, it is a vi­brant mix of art, cloth­ing and re­li­gious arte­facts from the King­dom. The first thing that strikes you about this ex­hi­bi­tion that man­ages to cross the bound­aries be­tween art, travel and his­tory is the colour – yel­lows, reds, blues and greens pro­vide an un­der­ly­ing theme through­out the col­lec­tion. Cos­mol­ogy and astrology play a large role in this colour pal­ette. Ac­cord­ing to cos­mol­ogy, the com­bin­ing of the four es­sen­tials (fire, wind, wa­ter and earth) cre­ated a new form, the hu­man body, with these five el­e­ments shap­ing the foun­da­tion of the Bhutanese in­dige­nous medicine. In this context, the colour red is des­ig­nated to fire, green to wind, white to wa­ter, yel­low to earth and blue to space. With re­gards to astrology, red, blue, white, yel­low and green are said to rep­re­sent the in­her­ent hu­man at­tributes of greed, anger, ig­no­rance, pride and jeal­ousy. The first floor is de­voted to ev­ery­day ob­jects, weaponry and cloth­ing. It’s a chance to see how even com­mon ob­jects (bam­boo wine con­tainer; curry bucket) are im­mac­u­lately crafted. Like neigh­bour­ing Nepal, Bhutanese tra­di­tional dress is all home­made, with pat­terns passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. The men’s tu­nics are sub­dued, while the women’s dresses are elab­o­rately wo­ven us­ing brightly coloured thread. Un­folded and hung on the wall, each piece of cloth­ing looks like an art­work in it­self, mea­sur­ing roughly 2m x 1m. Most pat­terns are sim­ple geo­met­ric de­signs re­peated for max­i­mum visual ef­fect – and from a dis­tance, some even re­sem­ble colour­ful 8-bit video game graph­ics. Tra­di­tional masks hang from the wall, while a video shows Bhutanese dance. It’s all very vis­ually stim­u­lat­ing – and could even be seen as rather omi­nous – but that’s ex­actly what is in­tended. Many of these masks and dances are a way to ward off evil spir­its. Al­most each village in Bhutan has its re­li­gious fes­ti­val char­ac­ter­ized by prayers and songs, and in most cases by re­li­gious dances called cham. Dancers, ei­ther monks or lay prac­ti­tion­ers, wear elab­o­rate cos­tumes made of silk, of­ten dec­o­rated with or­na­ments of carved bones. For cer­tain dances they wear masks, which may rep­re­sent an­i­mals, fear­some deities, or just plain hu­man be­ings. The masks are so heavy that dancers pro­tect them­selves from in­jury by bind­ing their heads in strips of cloth to sup­port the mask. The sec­ond floor, pre­sent­ing re­li­gious and royal arte­facts, is a con­trast of sim­ply de­signed prayer cym­bals and elab­o­rate Bud­dhas plated with gold. Ev­ery as­pect of Bhutanese life is in­flu­enced by Bud­dhism, which was in­tro­duced to the coun­try in the sev­enth cen­tury. Bhutan is the only coun­try in the world that has re­tained the Va­jrayana form of Ma­hayana Bud­dhism as its na­tional re­li­gion, and in­side the ex­hi­bi­tion you can see a se­lec­tion of small Bud­dha Va­jrasattva stat­ues that re­flect the peace and soli­tude the nation is known for. With its first demo­cratic elec­tions in 2007, Bhutan has re­cently been en­joy­ing its new­found democ­racy, yet along­side the au­thor­ity of Bud­dhism there con­tin­ues to pre­side the strong word of the king, still widely re­spected as a leader of the county, and of­ten her­alded as a sym­bol of the coun­try’s hap­pi­ness. Right at the end of the ex­hi­bi­tion, vis­i­tors can pass through the The­ater to Hap­pi­ness, where Bhutanese cit­i­zens de­scribe their own mo­ments of hap­pi­ness. In re­la­tion to other coun­tries in Asia, very few tourists visit each year, and the ap­peal of Bhutan for trav­ellers still lies in its mys­tery. The Bhutan Ex­hi­bi­tion – Hint to Hap­pi­ness of­fers a win­dow into one of the world’s most fascinating coun­tries through the lenses of art, travel, his­tory and tex­tile de­sign. (Courtesy : Tokyo Art Beat)

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