Situated on the foothills of the Dhauladhar range, the remote Gunehr village finds no mention on the art map of the world or even India. Predominantly inhabited by the shepherd community, art here entails a way of life and customs that are inherited and not coloured by contemporary hues. But the last few weeks have been different. It has seen the transformation of the otherwise ordinary market in the city square to be dressed with art that combines tradition with modernity. It has brought together village folk and artists, who usually work with galleries. This collaboration has been initiated by Frank Schlichtmann, the brain behind ShopArt ArtShop — a conceptual arts event that culminates in a week-long exhibition.
So around the beginning of May, nine participants from across India started arriving in Gunehr; Schlichtmann was their mediator. A resident of the quaint hill station for eight years, the German national worked with the filmmakers and artists to ensure that the festival, in its second edition, incorporates varied mediums and subjects.
If Delhi-based illustrator Gargi Chandola was introduced to Kangra miniature painters from the region to design the facade of numerous shops in the central market of the village, Bangalore-based illustrator Sheena Deviah has been turning abandoned shops into walk-in installations. “These are so-called hidden spaces that are not used or even looked at; I am trying to change that. The possibilities are endless,” says Deviah. In one such shop, she has painted a stained wall in all white. With found objects and paper pulp formations scattered around, she is narrating the story of birth and transformation.
“The project binds the urban and the rural. The works are site-specific, made without commercial constraints and concerns,” says Delhi-based artist Puneet Kaushik. The co-curator of the festival with Singapore-based Ketna Patel and Schlichtmann, Kaushik has worked on multiple projects based on the topography of the region. The multi-dimensional installation, From the Sky, involves painting the roofs of houses across Gunehar with leaf-like patterns. “It can only be seen in its entirety while flying or paragliding above Gunehar,” notes Schlichtmann. The same holds true for another project by Kaushik — a mirror installation on the riverside.
The idea was not only to include villagers but also tell their stories. Occupying the top floor of a half-finished brick house, blogger and filmmaker Amrit Vatsa has woven together three-minute narratives from the village, and Bangkok-based guerrilla filmmaker KM Lo has produced short sci-fi films with children in the village on a modest budget that the filmmaker terms “1-Rupee Cinema”.
There is pop art too. Patel’s photo booth is attracting visitors with its bright walls painted by families in the neighbourhood. In the last couple of weeks, she has invited villagers to get their portraits photographed in the shop and extract a narrative from them that has been converted into renditions put on different surfaces such as trays and hoardings, “making them celebrities of Gunehr”. The protagonists include a middle-aged couple whose photograph has been printed on a movie-style poster and a shepherd who has never stepped foot outside the village, but now poses before the Taj Mahal.
Delhi-based textile designer Rema Kumar collaborated with women in the village to create a line of clothing inspired by local designs and loom, primarily Luanchadi, the main costume of the Gaddi tribe. While these will be showcased on the ramp by the village women during a fashion show on the last day of the festival, June 14, Kumar’s exhibition area is a tea shop that she has decorated with rangoli and handmade streamers. “We are trying to learn about the traditions that even the villagers have forgotten and left behind,” she says. Schlichtmann feels his endeavour has been accomplished.
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