Lens on Bhutan: Ser­ena Cho­pra’s im­ages cap­ture a coun­try and cul­ture in tran­si­tion

Bhutan Times - - Editorial -

By Manik Sharma

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 un­der­ex­plored at each break in the light. The uni­form idea of In­dia serves as an arch­ing ref­er­ence to ev­ery­thing mid­dleAsian, 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 mid­dleage 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 12year 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.

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