A timely book on Bhutan uncovers a kingdom that is defined by its Gross National Happiness, writes Kishore Singh
This was the week to have been in Bhutan, a momentous few days that saw 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyal become the fifth king of the Wangchuk dynasty in a coronation ceremony that, though low-key in accordance with his father’s wishes, was nevertheless spectacular.
It was a week that formalised Jigme Singye’s abdication two years ago in favour of his son, and marked the entry into the next centum of Bhutanese monarchy, even as elections earlier in the year ushered in a democratic process in what is probably the least spoiled corner of the world, a place where, according to its fourth and former king, “Instead of putting the Gross National Product at the centre of our endeavours, let us strive for Gross National Happiness.”
It is a sentiment that seems to work in Bhutan; it has certainly drawn portrait photographer Gunter Pfannmuller and culture and travel writer Wilhelm Klein to it for close on two decades on “a quest that will not end for the rest of our lives”.
They initially visited the country to work on a project titled In Search of Dignity, which included forays also into East Africa, India and Myanmar. “The basic idea behind it,” Klein explains, “is that as colonialism once impoverished the colonised economically, similarly a cultural colonisation is taking place that destroys and robs the world of values that are irretrievable.”
The project was important to them because, as was evident, “Colonial photographers in the late 19th and early 20th century have left us with images of people and places whose soul has disappeared. We went out on 10 photographic expeditions to salvage what is still left,” expeditions under extreme “time constraint since modern transport and communication are erasing the last traces of a multi-cultural world faster than we can preserve it on film.”
Bhutan was part of that, yet something they wanted to keep apart. “With Bhutan we wanted to focus our Dignity project on one country, one culture and one people. We had photographed Christians, Muslims, Mother Goddess worshippers, animists, Hindus, Sikhs and Theravada Buddhists, but we spared Mahayana/Tantric Buddhists for this book. Since Tibet was out of question — we went there, but realised that the political situation wouldn’t permit us to work with the freedom and leisure we are used to — [so] there remained only Bhutan.”
The book, now in the market by happy coincidence at the time of the fifth king’s coronation, is like two different volumes, the first part clearly Klein’s historical and cultural reference work, accompanied by Pfannmuller’s extraordinary black and white photographs of Bhutan taken with a Leica camera (the colour pictures being less nuanced) of a — you can’t help but ask — disappearing Shangrila?
Klein isn’t happy at the comparison. “The idea of a Shangrila is always the idea of the visitor,” he insists. “Today [Bhutan] is the idea of the stressed ‘one-world’ inhabitant who longs for a place and a people with its own identity which has been lost in a world swamped mostly by the same set of ideas. Bhutan, yes, with its policy of GNH, or Gross National Happiness, and packed between the two most populous nations of the world, comes close to reflecting these dreams and projections.”
But: “For the Bhutanese themselves [Shangrila] has no meaning. They live in one of the poorest nations of the world, they too long for the amenities of modernity, but they are not willing to strive for them at any cost. Their identity as a Buddhist nation and as individuals in their exceptional locations is more important for most of them.
The government seems to have understood this. It has spared the country the agonies through which Nepal had to go, and it seems to have managed stepping into the modern times without losing what has been lost in most places elsewhere.”
The second section of the book somewhat abruptly transports you to Pfannmuller’s mobile studio, with posed portraits taken against a neutral background and shot using a Hasselblad. “During the Hannover World Expo 2000, we were fortunate to meet the then crown prince at the Bhutanese monastery, which was a highlight of the Expo,” explains Klein.
“We explained our project to him and, later, his ADC arranged that we could set up our studio at the Mothitng Palace in Thimphu where we could photograph members of the royal family.”
Klein explains the way the two collaborators — they have been working together since the eighties — view their work. “To catch on film what is for us dignity, the taking of a photograph needs to take at least as long as it takes to ‘read’ a photograph,” explains Klein, “to be confronted with a human being and not an object or a model.”
In their mobile studio, Klein explains, “We never did any ‘snapshots’...we didn’t photograph until we knew we were accepted.” This usually took a couple of days. “By that time we knew each one of them personally and the shooting session was more of a friendly reunion... We had learned about their personal history and we had studied their natural postures.”
As the young king takes his place among world leaders, it is interesting what Klein has to say of the first family of Bhutan. “The royal family tries to avoid the kind of media coverage that is so typical of European royalty,” he says. Anticipating, even though cynically, media demands, he says, “An exotic kingdom and its family would just be what the yellow press is looking for.
This does not fit the staunch Buddhist setup in Bhutan.” And adds for good measure, “The integrity of the royal family is too important for the country’s identity. It is protected as much from cheap public coverage as the religion is. On this basis, Bhutan has a good chance to carry its national identity into the 21st century.”
Bhutan offers a perspective of the kingdom’s GHP with a sensitivity that will find it a place in the archival annals that have motivated Pfannmuller and Klein’s work.
BY: Wilhelm Klein and Gunter Pfannmuller