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