The metallic clanging from the lathe shop falling oddly in step with the strides on the makeshift catwalk next to it could have been an installation. Then, this is what happens when daily life takes an arty turn. Or when you are impressively exposed to unusual attempts at reinventing space through creations that are not aloof from the land or the people surrounding it. But it was just another day in Gunehr. Rather the day before the finale. The culmination of an urge to shatter the tried and tested forms and practice of art, of reimagining art itself and probably the most simplistic and fastest way of bridging the urban-rural art divide – taking art into the village. Where the village itself is reborn as the core of art.
There is a fine, often vague line that divides experimenting and gimmickry. When the briefs are vague – what happens when the event itself is new – the greater tendency is to veer towards the outlandish. (Right, it doesn’t mean the danger is any less in more established episodes – take the ‘Orbit’ example.) But most of the artists I met at Gunehr treaded it with gusto. Big and budding names worked side by side, roamed the fields and walked into kitchens with canvases and cameras. No emulousness, just a binding sense to create something unique. The settings provided the impetus, the people were the inspiration. Pop and installation artists, filmmakers, fabric and fashion designers all together festooned a global diction with a village veneer. This was the second edition of the ShopArt ArtShop Festival held in the Dhauladhar-clad Gunehr village in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh.
Taking a cue from the touristy Bir and Billing, Dharamshala and Palampur next door and forced by falling agricultural returns, the villagers of Gunehr went on a construction spree. There was also the occasional visitor from the nearby Dharmalaya Institute and the artist colony Andretta.
“But as you can see most of these shops never opened for lack of renters or closed down due to slow business,” said Chandni Jain, one of the volunteers at the event who was taking us around the village. “Initially the villagers were reluctant to let us the key to their shutters but they soon not only relented but some became very enthusiastic supporters of the mela, as they call it.” The reason could be what Frank Schlichtmann, whose brainchild the festival is, says is more ‘pragmatic than philosophical.’
“I have been here for over eight years and wanted to do something for Gunehr. Nobody, nothing seemed to come this way.” Frank’s own 4 Tables and 4 Rooms, concept restaurant and accommodation in the village are doing alright. “From the hospitality point of view, I wanted to share my customer demographic with the entire village.”
If not a deluge, the footfalls have been increasing steadily since the month-long residence for artists began on May 14 this year. Travel bloggers came in batches as did some mainstream media. Everybody went back duly wowed and wrote about it in glowing terms. New paradigms of art were reported and the artists themselves were left beaming at the novelty of it all. As well as the warmth and the informality of their hosts.
“Ketna,” a little boy pulls pop artist Ketna Patel towards his lip level and after animatedly sharing some grouse darts away from her ‘Photo Ki Dukaan.’
“That one is a little gem,” she says. “He will come and report to me if anyone has been found anywhere near my prints.” Ketna’s shop has made celebrities of local villagers who have rarely gone beyond Palampur. Arcadian images of shepherds and aged couples bloom out of unexpected backgrounds, a riotous phantasmagoria. Each evening villagers come trying to spot who has been added to the kaleidoscopic wall of fame. There is much ribbing and giggling.
Right across the road from Ketna’s shop the atmosphere is more sobre. Princy is choreographing for Delhi-based designer Rema Kumar’s fashion show for the final day celebrations on June 14. Encouraging applause gets drowned in the clangour from the lathe shop flanking it. Future swains hang around and try to catch the models’ eyes with looks gravid with longing. Auditions over, everyone who turned up has made the cut. Princy loves challenges. Rema Kumar will be showcasing the fashion of the Gaddi tribe of the hills with a new twist.
“My interpretation of their ceremonial wear luanchadi has got them really intrigued,” Rema informs. “Many have come forward and asked me to recreate it for them in new, brighter colours like the ones I have designed.” Rema will be taking the new ‘Gaddi’ line to a national and international audience. “Largely unheard of in India, this occasional garment of the mountain folk of Gunehr is an amalgamation of a lot of foreign influences.”
The brimming energy and activity seemed to be keeping twilight at bay longer than usual. But finally daylight grudgingly gives way to the cobalt blue blankets of dusk. Near the Tuk Tuk Cinema, Bangkok-based filmmaker KM Lo lets go of a series of loud tintinnabulations through clenched teeth. The assembled villagers, a smattering of tourists and passers-by guffaw at the Tom Thum impersonation. KM Lo’s own filmy tribute to the artists and the villagers is a perky bit of filmmaking. A bunch of pretty local girls sitting next to me on the concrete floor dynamited my ear drums with catcalls and shrieks whenever somebody they knew came on screen. This was followed by blogger and filmmaker Amrit Vatsa’s series of three-minute films. Poignant storytelling, stories from the village, of dreams seen and shared but cautiously. The camerawork – by Amrit himself – is brilliant, following the subject like an interested onlooker; Amrit says the villagers were so used to seeing him with the camera it became almost an appendage of his limbs.
Under the moonlight, giant mushrooms in an unseen craggy nook glowed – one of the quirky installations from Bangalore-based Bianca Ballantyne and Sheena Deviah. In another, a discarded goat pen has been made lambent by papier mache lamps pendent like honeycombs. There were works by the multi-disciplinary Puneet Kaushik whose installations were unsettling and thereby thought-provoking. During the course of dinner I met many more – Neerja and Spriha who did wonders with paper, graphic designer Gargi Chandola who was instrumental in the facelift of the village square. I heard about ceramic artist Mudita Bhandari, artist couple Meenakshi J and Jey Sushil who cleaned up a mouldy, malodorous public building and painted it sparkling blue. And created coral on earth. Chandni Jain, who quit a corporate job with a luxury chain, was at her volunteering best – asking for donations.
A verklempt Frank kept disappearing alternately to the kitchen supervising the dishes being prepared and to the scotch which I had brought him to show my appreciation.
“So what’s next?” I ask him.
“Gotta get some sleep,” he replied.
“So how was it?” I direct my query at Chandni this time.
“Financially we are on a back foot. But we showed how art shows should be.”
They did indeed – unlike in cities where shows are put up by galleries or artist clusters for selling work, this is art for the love of art.
“And we also put Gunehr on Google.”