Visions from a Kingdom of Dreams
Published on December 6, 2008
The Nation - Bangkok, Thailand
Bhutan’s recent coronation of its fifth king gave the whole world a glimpse of the tiny Himalayan kingdom’s cultural riches. Foreigners peeked into a treasure house of unique cultural and religious traditions.
Sandy Shum has had a closer look than most, sucking up inspiration from Bhutan’s age-old tapestry of Vajrayana Buddhism, raw nature and the everyday wisdom of frugality. The American-born artist has poured her visions of the country into a new book, “Dreaming of Prayer Flags”.
Lured by its spiritual wealth, Shum left her lucrative career as an engineer in the States for a new life in Bhutan, where she carved out a niche as an artist.
Originally from California, Shum and her husband had their first overseas’ experience in Thailand. Back in 1989, they spent a holiday as volunteers in the refugee camps of Chon Buri’s Phanat Nikhom.
Then in 1994, a growing interest in Vajryana Buddhism drew them to Bhutan where they spent the next four years high in the mountains, learning to live with less.
“We chose Bhutan because Vajryana Buddhism has been practiced there in an unbroken line for centuries. It’s very much alive and part of daily life,” says Shum. “We also wanted a simpler life in the pristine environment of the high Himalayas.”
Soon after arriving, Shum received a visit from her photographer friend Paula Wenzl Bellacera, who gave her a vintage SX-70 Polaroid camera.
“She changed my life! She started me on a completely new and joyful creative path.”
Shum used the camera to capture everyday scenes of Bhutanese life, but that was just the start of the creative process. The emulsion on prints from the old sx-70 stays soft for about a day, giving Shum a window to transform them from snaps into visions. She pushes the emulsion around, using burnishing tools like a toothpick or a spoon to create texture and movement in the photographs.
“It’s a lot of fun to do and it can also be very meditative,” she says.
The result is a collection of impressionistic photos-cum-paintings that captures the many currents of Bhutan’s culture as it flows.
“Dreaming of Prayer Flags” blends Shum’s photographs with text written by the gifted Bhutanese writer Karma Singye Dorji. Karma’s stories reverberate with the deep feelings he has for his homeland and his king.
With her images, Shum aims to reveal the timeless, magical qualities that lie beneath Bhutan’s surface beauty: a woman winnowing rice, an old man spinning a prayer wheel, fiery red chili peppers drying in the sun, prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.
“These are ordinary things that you see every day in Bhutan and it’s easy to pass by without noticing. I hope that readers will be inspired to pause and appreciate the beauty that surrounds us,” she says.
Shum spent four years in the country, soaking up the surroundings in the remote district of Zhemgang where she was based. Here, the prayer flags that flutter on mountaintops and ridges caught her eye - and her viewfinder.
“The idea is that as the wind blows through the prayer flags, the air and land are infused with blessings.”
Visiting villages in the valleys, she discovered that the wisdom of self-sufficiency permeated every inch of the social fabric.
“You don’t need much out there - food from the garden, a roof over your head, some firewood to keep you warm, and good friends to warm your heart. There are remote villages that are many days’ walk from the nearest road. Even if you had a million baht, there is nothing to buy, nothing you need out there.
“I learned to do without a lot of material things. In fact, in many ways it’s easier not to have much. So what if my car gets scratched? So what if I lose my mobile phone?”
She adds that though the Bhutanese are striving for progress, the deep-rooted respect for their cultural and spiritual traditions means modernisation is being approached cautiously and in a balanced way.
That respect was most striking, she says, in the reverence with which Bhutanese greeted the coronation of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck last month, who at 28 became the youngest monarch in the world.
Shum encapsulates the lesson of her time in Bhutan in a single sentence: “If we just pause to look with a fresh perspective, every culture, every country, every moment of time has such beauty.”
“Dreaming of Prayer Flags” is on sale at Kinokuniya Books for Bt1,300. For more details, visit www.PrayerFlagsBook.com.
This article was reproduced with permission from The Nation Newspaper.
Read this story in the online version of The Nation at: http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2008/12/06/book/book_30090739.php