How a remote Indian hill village became centre of artistic transformation

Ketna Patel's Photo Shop
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By Jaideep Sarin

Gunehar, Himanchal Pradesh– A remote village in the picturesque Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh is experiencing its brush with contemporary art.

With artistes of international repute being in residence in the village for the last three weeks, village residents too are happy to involve themselves in Gunehar’s colourful and artistic makeover.

Market Square Gargi and Miniature painters
Market Square Gargi and Miniature painters

The second edition of the ShopArt ArtShop (SA AS) is already creating a fantasy world on the ground level for the village residents, who call it their own “mela”.

“It is a unique conceptual arts project that brings emerging artists, alongside established artists, to a remote village for a month-long project, ending in a festival of arts, culture, exhibitions, movies, fashion shows and drama,” SA AS curator Frank Schlichtmann told IANS.

“ShopArt ArtShop is first and foremost about being able to present art beyond the confines of the contemporary city-based art scene. It’s an opportunity for a group of artists to come together in a fully-funded month-long residency organised by the 4tables project,” said Schlichtmann, who has worked with internationally renowned artists Ketna Patel and Puneet Kaushik as co-organisers.

He said the artists here were free to experiment in the unique environment of the village and explore new methods while emerging artists receive support and mentoring of seasoned practitioners.

The first edition of SA AS was held in May-June 2013 with the participation of 13 international emerging artists. The event showed that “there is a great acceptance for such a ‘non-elitist’ approach to arts and artists and arts events”, Schlichtmann said.

“This event is a good thing because it exposes villagers to the modern world in a nice way. The fact that so many of the artists are women has a positive influence on the girls and young women of the village,” Bichitra Singh, Gunehar’s up-pradhaan (deputy chief), told IANS.

The artists, like ceramic art expert Mudita Bhandari, get a bit of localised fame.

“Artists like Sheena-didi and Mudita-didi are like role models because they can do whatever they chose to. We also want to be like them… and travel around the world,” a group of three girls said in unision.

“This is the best and most meaningful residency I have ever been to,” said Bhandari, recently named as one of India’s five best ceramic artists by ‘Architecture Digest’.

“The artists who came for the residency programme were taken around the village to choose their spaces (read shops). It turns out that for the second time running, not only were all the landlords totally accommodating but also did not ask for rent,” a visibly happy Schlichtmann said. He was keen to know if the villagers would seek to ‘profit’ from the event. “The answer was No.”

Even though some villagers are curious to know “Isme Frank ka kya phaida hai” (how does Frank benefit), the SA AS project remains a “not-for-profit” event.

Rema Kumar’s ‘Gunehar Fashion Show’ was a great collection based on traditional Gaddi and Bara Bhangali dresses in which every girl and woman of the village wanted to participate as models.

Every shop is grounded in something that is essentially ‘local’ and all the work that’s going on is happening in front of the villagers and visitors.

Amrit Vatsa’s ‘3minute stories’ are hugely popular because he has a great way of telling stories of villagers without exposing them.

Ketna Patel’s ‘Photo Shop’ is open to everybody and she has already created 25 plus collages of villagers that are now being printed as posters.

Sheena and Bianca have done little installations in the ‘dead end’ spaces reflecting on everyday life in a contemporary, artistic way. These have been done with playing cards and a curtain made of ‘bidis’ and a small transistor radio playing Pahari songs.

Gargi and the Pahari miniature painters have been painting the whole market square with themes of village life.

The grand finale of the week-long festival (June 7 to 14) will culminate in a big stage show on June 14 with a fashion show, music, film screenings and more. (IANS)


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