The ongoing photographic exhibition, Bhutan: An Eye to History, brings this small mountainous neighbour of India into focus. The exhibition, organised jointly by the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Indo-Bhutan Foundation, traces the photographic history of Bhutan, presenting over 80 photographs exhibited publicly for the first time.
Divided into three sections, the show opens with modern digital photography by Bhutan’s current monarch and evident photography enthusiast. The second portion features early photography of Bhutan from the 1860s taken during the Ashley Eden mission as well as images of the Bhutanese royalty in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition ends with photographs picturing official Indo-Bhutanese ties in current-day Bhutan, presenting the photographic journey in reverse chronology.
The show features large 16x24 inch black and white and digital colour prints shot by the current monarch, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, an amateur photographer who is described as a barefoot king, travelling the country and mixing with his subjects, while his photographic interests and skills are described in positively hagiographic terms. His oeuvre includes portraiture, wildlife and landscape photography. The young king’s subjects are ordinary people and everyday life— a sibling duo, old women laughing, a striking young girl in a blue jumper, and an old man, arrested mid-gesture. His black and white portraits of a warrior in full regalia, posing with sword, shield and gun against a plush silk divan and pillows in royal chambers, are printed digitally on archival paper, and show rich tonality. In particular, the image of the warrior with the shield is quite arresting, reminiscent of a medieval Central Asian soldier, like a figure from Genghis Khan’s army. Despite a good eye for composition, his photographs of monks, animals on foothills, of serene lakes and crumbling fortresses, along with the standard glowing lamp silhouetted against the dark are usual, photography-enthusiast stuff, strongly reminiscent of postcard images of Himalayan slopes, and therefore not of any real interest.
What is of interest, however, are the extremely rare, earliest existing photographs of Bhutan displayed here for the first time. From the silver gelatin and platinum prints of 1860s to those of the Delhi Durbar in 1911 to images from the 1930s and the 1950s, courtesy of various collections such as those of the Alkazi Foundation, the Bhutanese royal family, and the government of India. This section includes images taken during the Ashley Eden mission to Bhutan in 1864, featuring British officials with the Bhutanese royalty, and displays the rich tonality and grain of traditional prints. A rare image on view is of ‘Bhotanese men chiefly of Tibetan origin’ used in the 1868 issue of the Peoples of India series that the British brought out as part of their ethnographic series. Also exhibited here are visits of the first Bhutanese king, Trongsa Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck, to India in 1906 to meet the Prince of Wales in Calcutta, and in 1911 to attend King George’s coronation at the Delhi Durbar, as well as a lone image of the Bhutanese royal family taken in late 19th century at their country estate.
This leads into photographs of the 40s and 50s that picture the consistently friendly Indo-Bhutanese official relations, showing a rare glimpse of the Indo-Bhutanese treaty of friendship signed in 1949. There are also pictures of official events such as a visit by Nehru with a young, jauntily posing Indira on horseback, and an endearing shot of the young Bhutanese royal couple on their visit to the Taj in the 50s. This section of the exhibition is well-curated, offering a host of interesting information. The captions reveal that the British went ahead with the Eden mission to Bhutan despite official Bhutanese warnings and signed a treaty unfavourable to the Crown’s concerns, revealing in Bhutan a remarkable instance of self-assertion against imperial and colonial drives. Itself traditionally printed, one photograph in the series features an Englishman during the Eden mission washing a photographic print surrounded by curious Bhutanese villagers. Such an image offers important visual clues to photography’s past. The arduous journey on horseback and foot by Nehru and his official delegation in 1954 reveal Bhutan’s remoteness even in the 50s. Paved roads and the airport came only later.
While the exhibition’s images of a current-day idyllic Bhutan do smack of an official history, the early photographs offer a rare glimpse into the past of this region and are invaluable to those interested in cultural history as much as the history of photography itself. For this reason alone, the exhibition is well worth a visit.
-- Shruti Parthasarathy
(Images from top to bottom: Signing of the first Indo-Bhutan Friendship treaty at Darjeeling on the 8th of August 1949. Sri Harishwar Dayal, representing India, and Gongzim Sonam Tobgye Dorji representing Bhutan, signed the treaty; Royal guard photographed by His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, King of Bhutan; His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck the third king of Bhutan and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at Delhi in 1954. All images courtesy of the National Gallery of Modern Art and the artists.)