Bhutan by Bhutanese

Learning to express

“Bhutan by Bhutanese” a photo-exhibition by students of the Bhutan Institute of Media is being hosted by the city of Baar in Switzerland. The exhibition, which will continue for the next three weeks, was innaugurated on the 29th of January.

The banner features a photograph by Dorji Yuden, a student at BIM. I’ve uploaded a few more photos in the Gallery.

Excerpts of my speech during the innauguration follow:

We are gathered together as friends – friends of Bhutan. Some of you have visited my country. Some of you have worked there.

But  all of you – whether you’ve been to Bhutan or not – all of you would have some impressions about Bhutan.

Think about those impressions. What images come to your mind? What is the story of Bhutan?

  • The mighty Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountains – gigantic, awesome, magical
  • Pristine forests, glacial lakes, clear rivers
  • Monks, monasteries and mask dances
  • Fortresses (we call them Dzongs) – fortresses, farmhouses and lush paddy fields.
  • Prayer flags
  • People in colorful attire, sporting short hair, warm smiles, and an insatiable appetite for ema-datshi, a hot, spicy dish prepared from chili and cheese.
  • Benevolent kings. Kings who are loved – genuinely and deeply loved by their people. A king who abdicated his powers and resigned his throne … voluntarily. A king who started democracy … forcefully and against the very will of his people.
  • Gross National Happiness. A development philosophy that the world is talking about.

This story of Bhutan – medieval, magical, romantic – is a story about a Shangrila. And this story has been told and retold, hundreds of times, in postcards, magazines and coffee-table books.

Is this story of Bhutan correct? Is it accurate? I think so. I hope so.

But no matter, it is not complete story. It is not complete as this story – picture-perfect as it is – has been painted almost exclusively by foreigners. They are people who visited Bhutan, fell in love with our country and our people, and, as friends of Bhutan, decided to share their story with the rest of the world.

The story of Bhutan will be more complete – more accurate and more real – only when we, Bhutanese, express how we see our own country. When we, Bhutanese, tell our own story. But what is that story that we, Bhutanese, see in our own country?

Unfortunately we don’t know. Actually, that’s not correct – we do know! Obviously we know how we perceive our own country. It’s just that we haven’t yet begun to tell that story as we see it, through our eyes, and using the camera to transform what we see and feel into pictures.

But this is changing. Changing slowly but surely as demonstrated by today’s exhibition, “Bhutan by Bhutanese”.

“Bhutan by Bhutanese” showcases Bhutan as we, Bhutanese, see our own country. It is the story of Bhutan – our past, our present and our future – as seen by our own people. It is a story of Bhutan, as seen by the Bhutanese, and narrated by the Bhutanese.

But that’s not all – Bhutan by Bhutanese is the story of Bhutan as seen by the youth of Bhutan. They are the ones who are born and bred in Bhutan, who feel and breathe Bhutan, and who are confronted with the many changes taking place in our country.

Their stories also celebrate the wonders of Bhutan – our mountains and rivers, monasteries and monks, culture and people. But, as Bhutanese, they are able to view our country from the “inside” as it were, and so they bring an additional perspective.

“Bhutan by Bhutanese” is about that perspective. No doubt it is about the grandeur, the pomp, and the colors of Bhutan. But it also provides an insight into the real people and the real lives that thrive beneath the powerful veneer of pomp and colorful ceremony.

So “Bhutan by Bhutanese” is a story about Bhutan as our youth see it. It is a story about the hopes and joys, the fears and anxieties, the dreams and ambitions of our young people.

I’ve met some of these young people. Barely one year ago, none of them knew how to even hold a camera. And already, their photographs tell a compelling story about Bhutan. I hope you’ll enjoy their story.

Many photographers still depict Bhutan as a Shangrila. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Bhutan is changing. And changing fast. It’s important to recognize these changes. And to record them … preferably by our own people. Bhutan by Bhutanese.

In this regard, I’m happy that, because of BIM, Bhutan by Bhutanese is now possible. In fact it is already a reality.