Rolling hills, grey grasslands, people dressed in black and white – photographer Serena Chopra’s Bhutan is without greens and reds and blues. Devoid of colours they might be, but the photographs capture the magic and vibrancy of the land-locked Himalayan country.
It was on a vacation with friends that Chopra first visited Bhutan in 2002. "I had no plans or goals," said Chopra. "The journey just evolved organically and I kept going back. I did not question the process. I just knew that it was a valuable journey that I must make."
Over the next few years, her Hasselblad camera by her side and with the help of local Bhutanese porters, she travelled the valleys of this Himalayan kingdom and lived in the homes of many Bhutanese people, gaining an intimate experience of their way of life and the beliefs that governed them.
Her photographic works from these trips will be on display at an exhibition titled Bhutan Echoes at Kolkata’s Harrington Street Arts Centre.
“It was a personal choice to shoot in black and white,” said Chopra. “I feel I can express the essence of my subject when it’s stripped of the way I am accustomed to seeing things, be it people or landscapes. Perhaps when we take away the colour we experience a shift in our conditioned perception and we touch on the same subject in a whole new dimension.”
Whether it is a farewell dance in progress in the village of Sakteng, or the queen of Bhutan Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck herself in her Thimpu palace, Chopra brings out something deep and intimate in each picture. The contemplative gazes of her subject penetrate far into a viewer's consciousness even as they stand frozen in time within their frame. According to Chopra, as she got to know her subjects better, she began to photograph them with a vision that came from a more subtle understanding of their truth.
Chopra has been a witness to the change Bhutan has undergone since her first visit and speaks of a time when Bhutan was unexplored and untouched by globalisation. Bhutan Echoes captures a country in transition – one that has remained rooted in its faith, identity and culture, even while opening its doors to economic and technological advancement. Chopra's photographs are a portrait of a community attempting to embrace a more holistic idea of modernity that is inclusive of their heritage. She captures life in the streets of cities and villages of Bhutan, whether it is the bustling capital of Thimpu or the peaceful life of the countryside such as Merak and Loto Kuchu.
"The milestones of progress over the last 15 years seem to spell change that has not always been welcome," she said. "The religious tenets and philosophy of Buddhism will hopefully keep the fourth king's motto of Gross National Happiness (and not Gross National Product) alive and prevent rampant deterioration of this beautiful country's environment."
Bhutan Echoes by Serena Chopra will be on display from September 26 to October 7 at The Harrington Street Arts Centre, Kolkata.