In 2002, photographer Serena Chopra — armed with a Hasselblad camera — was on the seven-day Druk Path trek in Bhutan, once used as a punishment trail for Bhutanese soldiers. But she had to abort it midway after most of the group’s accompanying horses ran away. By then, the monastery of Jilli Dzong she saw on the first day — with its panoramic views — had cast its spell on Chopra, leading her to the realisation that “this was the land where she was meant to be and where she would find her way”.
She kept returning to Bhutan for the next five years, walking into the remote interiors and hidden valleys of the Himalayan kingdom, even landing her as a guest in several Bhutanese homes. The result of these encounters can be viewed at Bikaner House as part of an exhibition titled “Bhutan Echoes”, which offers a glimpse into a significant period in Bhutanese history, before it turned into a parliamentary democracy in 2008.
Among the 37 black-and-white photographs on display is one of the masked Yak Cham performers belonging to the Merak village, their faces replete with a multitude of expressions. The 64-year-old Delhi-based photographer chanced upon her subjects during the Yak Cham festival held annually by the semi-nomadic tribe of the village in the honour of yaks who provide the community with food, shelter and clothing. “The folk drama is weaved around this whole mystical and mythical story about how the community came to Merak along with the first yak. The animal is their lifeline,” says Chopra, whose first body of work on Bhutan was exhibited in New York as well as Thimphu a couple of years ago. She has also documented the lives of resident Tibetan exiles in Majnu Ka Tila in Delhi and the Naga sadhus at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.
At the current exhibition, there is also the portrait of Ome, a yak herder stationed near the Laya army camp, during one of the grazing trails for yaks. The tent made up of yak hair is nearly waterproof and protects many herders from the rain, points out Chopra. Seated atop a horse, another herder is wearing a “rain hat” fashioned from yak hair, with long twisted tufts to prevent the rain from running into his face.
The former queen of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, also makes an appearance in Chopra’s work, seated within the quiet remains of her palace, looking intensely at the hearth in her room decorated with dragon-like motifs. In her effort to capture the other side of Bhutan, Chopra has also captured an urban mood of the country. There is Yangchen Wangchuk, the daughter of a friend in Thimpu, sporting a spaghetti top and pencil pants, all set to go to the only discotheque in Thimpu, in 2004. “This was an uncommon practice at the time as there was culture police. Women had to wear the kira, their national dress, while out on the streets,” says Chopra.