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PRAYAAG AKBAR
GROUND REPORT

Prayaag Akbar is Associate Editor of The Sunday Guardian

Bhutan: A Pale View of Hills

Bhutan is in a strange moment, as an age-old sense of nationhood and monarchy is buffeted by new ideas and influences. At the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Thimpu Prayaag Akbar saw a nation’s muted embrace of modernity

The Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, a fortress-monastery near Thimphu

espite its placid, gleaming demeanour, Bhutan is at a peculiar moment in its history. At one level it is Blyton's Toyland, a place of tireless beauty, filled with smiles, where rains frame its mountains with light mist and double rainbows appear carelessly, diamond-sharp against the sky. Yet unobtrusively, amidst all this natural splendour, you also get the sense of unfolding change; a nation that prides itself on being the youngest democracy in the world is beginning to comprehend what substantive redesign that label demands.

Contemporary Bhutan is fascinating because it shows in microcosm how "traditional" societies manage their encounter with modernity. The first legislature assembled in 2008, and for many Bhutanese, especially of the older generation, there is a palpable sense of anxiety about a disappearing way of life, loss of tradition, a gnawing fear that a vast culture will shrink to the size of the state. As a first-time visitor, I could not imagine what they were talking about. Bhutan seemed buoyed by its traditions: dress, food, dance, language, bearing, architecture — such markers of culture were distinctly their own and kept determinedly in sight. Yet I would hear repeatedly the refrain that Bhutanese culture was liable to be overrun by malign foreign forces.

In many ways, it echoes one aspect of the Indian experience of the last two decades. We tend to forget it now, but it was not so long ago that cultural gatekeepers railed against the growing influence of the West in India. Now that debate has been silenced in the big cities, hollowed by the triumph of consumerist opportunity, the embrace between the party of the Hindu right and the American establishment, and — one hopes this was the killer blow — the visually rich comedy of cartons of pink panties landing on the desks of our nation's biggest chauvinists. This, I stress again, only in big-city India: not in spaces where the pleasures of capitalism have not spread so widely, but where its keener edge is felt more often.

It is perhaps at such moments of flux that writers, thinkers and artists most try to understand themselves and the environment they live in. So it was with some interest that I attended Siyahi's Mountain Echoes festival, a charming five-day event that brought together some of India's better-known publishers and writers with a number of interesting poets, writers and teachers from Bhutan. Perched upon the hills of Thimpu, as an interaction between the two cultures this festival is a triumph. It allows young Bhutanese students to learn from a series of accomplished writers, editors and publishers. And if it manages, as it intermittently promised, to advance the arts of Bhutan towards a modern literary tradition, it will have done Bhutanese culture and the nation's mode of democratisation a great service.

Let me explain. Cultural expression in Bhutan is oddly static, as if culture and tradition have interchangeable meaning. In almost every form, whether through masked dance, song or writing, it is a celebration of the Old Way. It has thrived because of its veneration of traditional Bhutan's glories: religion, monarchy, nature, monkhood. In turn, such expression has been cosseted by these very institutions, hallowed to the point that some young Bhutanese women and men cannot see its relevance to their lives.

But things have now begun to change. Cable television entered in the 1990s and the Internet recently followed. On Friday night, near our hotel in Thimphu a local band played a show in the school auditorium. As I walked past I heard the unmistakable wail of an electric guitar, a crash of drums, and then hundreds of voices singing in Dzongkha (the local language) the chorus to a popular song. Even to my untrained ear, this was patently not the Old Way. Here was a new form of music, one that found its centre as the country opened up its borders. It contained within it expression of the joy and rage and angst that make youth such a bumpy, wonderful ride. And despite its reference of foreign styles, perhaps even because of it, it sounded to me a more authentic voice of modern Bhutan than all the ancient folk songs I'd heard until then. Let me ask: if a foreign visitor needed quickly to understand India, in all our resplendent modern manias, would she do better to listen to Bhaag D.K. Bose or Rabindrasangeeth?

The Individual & the Collective

nother often-heard, wistful declaration: "the youth of today are only interested in individual needs. When we were younger, the collective happiness of Bhutan was all that mattered." This is an interesting notion, and its popularity amongst the older generation ties in with the celebrated Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness. Here again, Bhutan's peculiar approach to modernity comes to the fore. The elite owns most big business in Bhutan, and many are related to or at least friendly with the royalty. But as capitalism takes root it also champions the individual over the collective ethos. While sadly this will mean more Ayn Rand books will be sold, it will also begin to reward the hungriest, niftiest and canniest. Bhutan's notion of the collective, top-ordained and filled with comforts for the kingdom's old elite, could quickly seem antiquated.Image 2nd

Bhutanese literature is now attempting to codify its vast oral tradition — a step fraught with much hand-wringing. Scholars struggle to be true to songs and poems handed down, seeking to divorce them, somehow, from their own understanding, prescribed as it is by the modern context. But I was heartened to meet a group of young authors at Mountain Echoes who seemed least interested in the oral tradition that had gone before them. For the art of a culture to evolve, it requires a generation, even a small group, to tear themselves from all that has gone before them. If the Progressive Artists had not emerged, perhaps young Indians would still paint like Raja Ravi Verma.

These were young writers, and their stories needed work, but they were the voices I felt most keen to represent contemporary life in Bhutan. Their collection had small tales, ranging from personal narrative to science fiction, but their writing had a vitality I could not sense in the staid incantations of poetry we also heard. There is a quite shocking dearth of contemporary writing in Bhutan [The only similar writing I could find was on a blog, (Bhutanliterature.blogspot.com)]. King Jigme Wangchuck and the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangchuck, have recognised this need for competing narratives, even if many in Bhutan have not. Their patronage of the festival is a means of encouraging just this kind of expression.

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Contemporary Bhutan is fascinating because it shows in microcosm how “traditional” societies manage their encounter with modernity

One of this group of young writers, 20-year-old Palden Wangchuk, told me, "most people here are not willing to try something different. This is a small society, so people censor themselves. People are afraid to do things that have not been done before." I asked him what he felt would happen if he wrote a story critical of having to wear the gho (a traditional outfit worn by Bhutanese males) on occasions such as the fancy dinner we were at. "No comment," he smiled.

While in Bhutan I was reading, quite by coincidence, Kazuo Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills. As far as I could tell (it is as bewildering and beautiful as most of his work) one of the themes he explores is how the post-War dissolution of the monarchy affects the Japanese psyche, how education and indeed the national understanding must respond to such drastic political change. As Hiroshima attempts to live in the aftermath of the bomb, the narrator's father-in-law, a former headmaster, cannot countenance that a student of his, now grown up, can so strongly criticise his teacher's unquestioning acceptance of the imperial manner of education. Hierarchy, paternalism, collective identity under a sovereign: these are the things democracy challenges.

When caught in one of my bouts of Romanticism, I like to think of literature as a small agent of change. As the novelist Chandrahas Choudhury pointed out in an edifying session at the festival, "the novel is an instrument that is alive to all the small combinations of pressures and circumstances and memories and ideas that make for the gesture of a particular moment." It is a bastion of solitude and individuality when much of popular art – film, theatre, dance – has embraced the collective. As Bhutanese society opens up, writers will question the hegemony of old ideas, waves against a steadfast cliff, unnoticed at first but capable of great change.

 
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