Friday, January 11, 2013

Michael Hawley's "Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey": Book Review

This younger sibling to the world's biggest book continued raising funds for medical and educational projects "across the last Himalayan kingdom." Friendly Planet, a charity spinoff of M.I.T., raised money in an innovative fashion, as digital photography and bookbinding skill combined with high-tech expertise under a team led by Professor Michael Hawley, who ran the campus' Media Lab's special projects division. The big brother book, 5' by 7' and weighing 150 lbs., dwarfed the two Bhutanese schoolchildren the team "adopted" on their initial November 2001 visit, when displayed at Harry Winston's gallery in Manhattan. This 2003 book symbolized the meeting of high rollers with a worthy cause, and demonstrated how a $15,000 volume could further other schoolchildren and families in the remote areas of this region, reached only by trails, far from the touristed areas the book documents.

For the smaller companion, itself considerable at a foot by two feet and 15 lbs., this expands the original. It reproduces the immense photos and doubles their number, if in less stupendous manner, by explaining how the original was assembled, and how the team returned to Bhutan in 2003 to bring aid to villages and schools from the moneys raised by the big book. Now out-of-print, this follow-up 2004 volume also contributed its profits to Friendly Planet, and Hawley's text and captions, garnered from a cooperative of eleven photographers, conveys the appeal of the Buddhist kingdom and people.

Highlights include: David Macauley's handsome endpaper map; colorful masks, costumes, and dancers from a Trongsa "tsechu" or "ten-day" annual festival; shots of monastic celebrations normally forbidden to photograph; marvelous expanses from Jholmohari's snowy range bordering Tibet; and encounters with the Merak and Sakteng's Brokpa yak herders that conclude this elegant presentation. 

There's little about the history or current events beyond an itinerary following (if in reverse contrary to other versions) the sole east-west route dominating most travel narratives, understandably given the necessity to follow this to get across the mountainous domain, however slowly by jeep. It ventures off-road in two memorable sections, even as these may therefore romanticize portions of the experience, and the urbanizing and modernizing pressures on Thimphu the capital, or the demographic increases by both the southern bordering Nepali and Indian-backed peoples are barely glanced at. But readers wanting more can look elsewhere for such coverage. It's easy to get caught up in the marvels of a fabled place. The intention here is to provide visual splendor, and that goal is met. 

This volume may only be in a large library, for reference or in a rare-book room. (The big book is even rarer, naturally). It's worth spending a few hours with, to enjoy what a well-prepared text (despite a few typos--"abbot" is misspelled every time) and collection of images provide about a realm often mythologized by past and present visitors. This may prolong the myth-making, but it also addresses the practical shortcomings of everyday education and medical care too many still suffer.
(Amazon US 11-18-12)

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