Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nicole Grace's "Dreaming Bhutan": Book Review

How does this book, praised by nearly all previous [Amazon US] reviewers, compare with similar images paired with text? I've looked at (and reviewed recently) a few such pairings. Most of these have amassed far fewer reviews--even taken together--compared to Nicole Grace's "Dreaming Bhutan: Journey in the Land of the Thunder Dragon." I want to provide more context, given the paucity of most earlier and often effusive remarks as to its substance.

Substance itself may elude the reader wishing for information. Grace in her one-page introduction, however, tells her choice to eschew such detail found elsewhere. Rather, as if "waking from a rare, exquisite dream, and finding yourself reliving its charms in vivid flashes, I have attempted to capture a few precious moments." (15) This is her prerogative. But compared to other collections, how well does she do so?

She presents in "a brief glimpse" over forty photos on the right side, spare text which could fit on a postcard on the left, leaving lots of blank space. Perhaps the slightly blurred resolution of some of the photographs fits the title, as she in promotional material for this book explains how she wants to show "dreaming" not "of" but "Bhutan" itself--as a portal to enlightenment. A romanticized approach directs Grace's gaze. It prefers "a world of enchantment, ancient rituals and dress that seems not to have changed in hundreds of years."

This offers little commentary. The newcomer curious about this Himalayan constitutional monarchy, perusing these shots of Buddhist-themed and landscape-dominant subjects, will find little information. A couple of the vertiginous Taktsang cliffside iconic monastery are perhaps necessarily tilted away from the portrait to landscape settings, but this does not enhance their effect, and details of certain places and vistas are not sharply rendered or reproduced on the page. The large map cannot be discerned as to place names. The Royal Grandmother's forward takes two sentences. A few Dzongkha terms, endnotes, and an appreciation for her 2009 visit guided by an "Aide de Camp to the beloved fourth King" and also his family which enabled her access to some holy places supplements the main body, the photos and captions.

No bustling Thimphu of now a hundred thousand residents, no girls in jeans, no guys in sneakers, no cigarettes or traffic--even the eyeglasses on one shadowy monk are barely discerned. In "a cross between the mythical lands of Shangri-La and Brigadoon," if one wants to imagine a Buddhist Bhutan free of modern presence, this will satisfy your desire.

I liked the two quotes included from the country's notorious guru from centuries ago, the Divine Madman Drukpa Kinley. He's an apt rejoinder to pomposity. Overly earnest audiences might take heed of his subversive message--and the libertine style with which he conveyed it down to the phallic decorations on walls today in his memory.

In two photos on the road to Bumthang, two painted cave pictures of Padmasambhava and the Buddha and an inscribed encouragement from that latter figure appear. She notes how, old as they look, they were made for the set of a scene from Khyentse Norbu's "Travelers and Magicians" film--"NOV 2002/ Scene 112/TAKE 101" accompanies the prayer. That and a page to the 108 chortens on Dochu La to commemorate the national campaign against Indian militants are about the only references to the contemporary occurrences in this land, not as much a "Lost Horizon" as the dust jacket's quote may lead the captivated newcomer to assume about a fragile ecological, political, and cultural entity between China and India.

For those who want to explore in photos and text the challenges for this precariously perched realm, other volumes and media may be contrasted.  The Dragon Kingdom: Images of Bhutan by Blanche Christine Olschak (1984, with photography by Ursula Markus-Gansser and Augusto Gansser) covers similar Buddhist material but with a text attentive to its integration in culture and history. Bhutan: Fortress of the Mountain Gods by Christian Schicklgruber and Françoise Pommaret (1998) gives a hefty academic weight to the same, with scholarly chapters and images of artifacts.

If you want less weighty text than these but a bit more than Grace's brevity, begin with Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon by Robert Dompnier (1999); he entered monasteries and holy sites to show interiors more than she may have been able to do. A few years later, Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom by Michael Hawley (2004 in smaller but still very large format than its 2003 museum showcase as the "biggest book in the world") balances an east-to-west journey (the opposite of the usual itinerary) with hundreds of digital photos. Finally, an updated look at the changing legacy of faith, custom, and globalization, a handsome treatment with sharp color photography is Bhutan Heartland by Libby Lloyd and Robert van Koesveld (2010).

Skillful black and white photography conveys its own suggestive appeal. See Bhutan: Between Heaven and Earth by Mary Peck (2011 with a valuable essay by Karma Ura on Gross National Happiness policy) and for more personal insights combined with a wider territorial range, Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness by John Wehrheim (2nd ed. 2011). Hawley, Lloyd + Van Koesfeld, Peck + Ura, and Wehrheim all include the more difficult, less evocative subjects missing from "Dreaming Bhutan."

Perhaps it's meant to be only a dream. But Bhutan's reality's worth investigating beyond the limits of these forty or so glimpses. Grace's book may whet the appetite; perhaps some of you will turn to more extensive presentations from this land. (Amazon US 12-20-12)

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