Bhutan in cusp of change – a new power play in South Asia

South Asia-Culture/Diplomacy  

 ImageBhutan, Mountain Echoes, Festival, 2013   

 

By Madhusree Chatterjee

Thimpu (Bhutan)

 The land of the thunder dragon – Bhutan nestled in the recesses of Himalayas – is emerging as a soft power confluence in the South Asian region, riding on its first wave of democracy and neighbour India’s bilateral goodwill and infectious free spirit.

 Bhutan which saw a change of guard  at its helm with a new government and a new Prime Minister after its second parliamentary elections in May – opened its fourth edition of Mountain Echoes Literature Festival- a strategic gala of literature, art and culture Aug 8-12 in its capital Thimpu. The festival usually scheduled in May was postponed to August in the light of the elections.

 The festival held under the royal patronage of the queen mother of Bhutan Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk is supported by the India-Bhutan Foundation that works with a Jaipur-based non-profit literary platform Siyahi and a host of corporate partners to get the logistics off the ground.

This year, the prime sponsor is Usha International Limited – which has pitched in with resources to “make the carnival happen”.

 The festival in a way is reflective of a changing Bhutan – showcasing the spirit of a consolidating democracy and a new sense of inclusion. On the inaugural evening on Aug 8, when the queen mother opened set the fiesta in motion at a glittering ceremony at the India House in Thimpu, the bonhomie between the new elected leader of the state and the royal family was on full display. Queen mother Ashi Dorji escorted the new Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, who was the Opposition leader for the last five years, introducing him to the crowd from – mostly invited delegates and guests from India and Bhutan – as a man of “refined taste and strong cultural inclinations”.

 It was an unique example of of socio-political harmony – representative of perhaps one of the world’s few active monarchy  in tandem with the custodians of the new democracy.

 This year, “the festival is important because it is being held after Bhutan’s second parliamentary elections,” queen mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk told the packed audience at India House. “We have a new Prime Minister and a new government to take Bhutan to new developmental heights”, the queen said.

 The intellectual itinerary of the festival upholds the country’s growing “progressive outlook” to the future – based on a healthy mix of the old and the new. Mountain Echoes has on its agenda a gamut of subjects ranging from literature, arts, culture, religion and cinema to pertinent and immediate social spotlights like the role of new media in a fledgling democracy, Bhutan in the cusp of change, gender, environment and development.

As a result, the star of the festival is television icon Barkha Dutt whose contribution to the new media movement in India will be unplugged in a special session. Journalists Tarun Tejpal and Bachi Karkaria are the additional media draw to the show – both as participants and observers. Bhutan’s obsession with the media has been mounting since the last decade when the monarchy decide to open out to include voices of Opposition and free expression, allowing the media to act as a watchdog with “a degree of caution and checks”.

 The newspapers and the television – with quasi government controls – mostly report on state’s tryst with development, attempts at nomic resurgence and expanding education networks at the grassroots.

 “There is a fair emphasis on the media in democracy this year,” festival co-director Namita Gokhale said.

 A strange kaleidoscope of the old and new permeates the state. While most in the age groups of 30 years and above still cling to tradition – in attires, faith and livelihood – allowing the ancient mores to play out in their lives, the younger generations have embraced the winds of freedom flowing from across the continents. The terms of engagement are different.

The social barometer swings between sacred chants of peace and the monastic rites – from the shrines of Buddha that dot the hills – to animated discussions on democratic models around the world.

 Literature, arts, fashion and media are the new “isms”- in the land that till two decades ago led an insulated “kingly” existence. Bhutan is known the world over as a “country that had been able to nurture the past unadulterated to hand down to the generations as it was centuries ago”.

 The country’s early history is shrouded in mythology- and remains misty. The evolution of modern Bhutan can be traced back to the 9th century when Tibetan Buddhism made inroads into the state, leading to the establishment of the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Buddhism – the state’s primary religion. The consolidation of modern Bhutan happened around the 17th century with the creation of the monarchy.

 Exposure to the world is new buzzword in Bhutan today – the guests at the Mountain Echoes have arrived from as far as San Francisco. Critics and observers say the festival has been a catalyst in breaking down the walls of exclusivity with its spirit of exchange.

 “Bhutan today is in the cusp of change”, Gokhale said, adding that “the festival was a way of straining the literary and creative frontiers of the human mind- giving the people of Bhutan the ability to dream”.

The festival that began as a literary gala in 2010 has now expanded to include “many languages, arts and styles”, says Indian envoy to Bhutan V.P. Horan.

 “The festival has been the most importance confluence of soft power between India and Bhutan. It has renewed interest in literature in Bhutan,” the ambassador said. People of Bhutan are now “more aware what India has to offer in terms of art, culture and creativity”.

 It has spurred the younger generations into reading and has even led to a book club in Thimpu.

 Democracy and the “nascent ripples of freedom” are drawing Bhutan to India. “Bhutan and India share a very close relationship which has been buttressed by great people to people contact throughout history with films, cultures, religions, languages, education and harmony,” said former Indian envoy to Bhutan and noted writer Pavan K Varma, one of the founding fathers of the festival.

The festival is one “concrete response to the friendly vibes between India and Bhutan”, he said. “There is a great deal of respect for India in Bhutan (unlike in many other neighbouring countries),” Varma said. The diplomat-turned politician pointed out that the India-Bhutan friendship could play a big role in “strengthening the South Asian solidarity block” and cultural synergy.

 The cultural chemistry is evident – movie stars like Aparna Sen, Rahul Bose and playwright Mahesh Dattani are sharing space with Bhutanese scholars, activists and performers like Lily Wangchuk, Ani Choying and Karma Phuntsho. “Amish Tripathi, the author of the Shiva Trilogy is the most widely read writer in Bhutan,” co-director of the festival Namita Gokhale said.

 India is looking to building greater “solidarity” in the region on the strength of this soft power, an observer said.

 “People are used to communicating with each other but this is a deeper level of communication between the two countries,” Namita Gokhale said.

 -Madhusree Chatterjee 

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