Gunehar village in Kangra looks like just any other remote village in Himachal Pradesh. Its streets are lined with modest buildings with box-like shops on the ground floor, kids skip along to school, buses trundle down curving roads, and residents catch up on the neighbourhood news in the village square.

But a month ago, Gunehar was transformed.

Shuttered shops were opened, dusted and converted into little art galleries, the village children starred in a short film or two of their own, the roof of a half-constructed building hosted an art installation made up of a collection of empty whiskey bottles donated by locals, and you needed to be careful about what you said on the road because an artist with a huge boom microphone was watching pedestrians and others to see if they could provide fodder for a three-minute film.

Urban to rural

The village, with a population of 2,600 that is a five-hour drive from Chandigarh, is hosting ShopArt ArtShop 2, the second edition of a project that has pulled conceptual art out of urban galleries and brought it to a rural milieu.

As part of the month-long festival that concludes on June 14, artists from around India and the world have worked on 11 art projects in Gunehar, pronounced Guned by locals.

The festival was first conceived of by German-Indian businessman Frank Schlichtmann in 2012. Schlichtmann, who runs a tiny boutique hotel and café in the area, was on a walk through the village when he noticed that several shops built along the streets in anticipation of future business, were lying shuttered. That gave him the idea that these spaces could be filled by more than the sacks of rice or flour that they were perhaps intended for. Why couldn’t they be spaces for art instead?

The first ShopArt ArtShop project was held a year later. Though that was self-funded, for this year’s edition, Schlichtmann collaborated with British-Indian pop artist Ketna Patel and mixed-media installation artist Puneet Kaushik – both established names in the contemporary Indian art scene – and attempted to raise money through the crowd-funding platform, Ketto.

ShopArt ArtShop participants are handed a broad brief: the art has to be accessible, the process transparent and should integrate villagers, local materials and themes.

A collaborative effort

Over the past month, Delhi illustrator Gargi Chandola and her team have transformed walls at the village square by painting them over with a style taken from graffiti art and Kangra miniature paintings. Transposing miniature motifs onto double-storey walls was not an easy task, but Chandola and team have done it with élan. The square is a riot of colour.

Delhi-based illustrator Gargi Chandola and her team hard at work at the Gunehar village square. (Photo credit: shopartartshop/Instagram.)
Delhi-based illustrator Gargi Chandola and her team hard at work at the Gunehar village square. (Photo credit: shopartartshop/Instagram.)

“I was nervous and unsure about this challenge,” said Chandola. “But the enthusiasm of people, their demand to paint their shops, has taken away any doubts from my mind. What we are doing here is the first of its kind and it makes us so proud and happy. People watch us keenly while we work.”

Nearby is Patel’s Photo Ki Dukan, where kids and entire families are regulars. Patel has turned the messages, writings and photographs of locals into material for pop art. The taxiwala, with his attitude, has become a Hollywood hero, and the ubiquitous paragliders, who dot the Gunehar sky, have been turned into birds of folklore who help the women of the village carry their heavy baskets.

Delhi-based artist Puneet Kaushik, Gunehar's Frank Schlichtmann and British-Indian pop artist Ketna Patel – the curators of ShopArt ArtShop 2 – at Patel's Photo Ki Dukan. (Photo credit: ShopArt ArtShop/Facebook)
Delhi-based artist Puneet Kaushik, Gunehar's Frank Schlichtmann and British-Indian pop artist Ketna Patel – the curators of ShopArt ArtShop 2 – at Patel's Photo Ki Dukan. (Photo credit: ShopArt ArtShop/Facebook)

Heroes and heroines

The artist with the boom mic is IITian Amrit Vatsa, who left the corporate world for more creative pursuits. He makes three-minute documentary films and moves around with his camera and mic, befriending villagers, trailing them across fields, into their homes, so that they can tell him their stories.

Amrit Vatsa makes 3-minute films. (Photo courtesy: ShopArt ArtShop)
Amrit Vatsa makes 3-minute films. (Photo courtesy: ShopArt ArtShop)

One of Vatsa’s films is on Maniram, a nondescript gardener always busy working in his own patch of land, who Vatsa once found cleaning a gun. The film on Maniram was screened during the festival and left the audience in splits.

But the visiting artist with the greatest following is KM Lo, a Singapore-based filmmaker, who literally has a tail of children trailing him wherever he goes.

Lo, who participated in the 2013 festival too, is known for his low-budget Tuk Tuk Cinema, which, during the festival, screens films to noisy approval on Sundays.

The village kids are stars of Tuk-Tuk Cinema. (Photo courtesy: ShopArt ArtShop)
The village kids are stars of Tuk-Tuk Cinema. (Photo courtesy: ShopArt ArtShop)

Tuk Tuk Cinema, also known as One Rupee cinema, often screens films starring the village children. In 2013, the children acted in a zombie movie where they went zombie-like around the village pretending to attack other kids. This year, the children starred in a science fiction film where they fought off an alien chicken to applause from the hundreds of people who attended the screening.

Reviving creativity

The art all around him seemed to have inspired Gunehar local Dhuniram to attempt a craft long forgotten.

At an abandoned tea shop that textile and fashion designer Rema Kumar converted into the Gunehar Fashion Shop, Dhuniram offered the designer a unique gift – colourful, finely cut geometrical shaped buntings that he made himself. “I learnt this art 20 years ago, but am out of practice and almost forgot it,” said Dhuniram. “I bought paper from Palampur to make them.”

In the shop, locals assisted Kumar, who is preparing for the first-ever Gunehar Fashion Show, to be held on June 14.

The designer found weavers to work on Launchadi – the traditional apparel of the women of the Gaddi tribe, who inhabit this region. At the shop, Saroj, a Gaddi woman, deft with the handloom, was busy working on shawls for the show. The models for Kumar’s designs are also locals.

The collaborative project has seen villagers offering artists labour and space to work out of.

Mahinder Thakur, who offered his under-construction house to Puneet Kaushik, is happy to see so many visitors coming to see “his house of art.” Kaushik’s first installation in that building was destroyed in a storm, after which locals donated to him their collection of empty alcohol bottles that are now strung up across unfinished concrete pillars against the blue sky. On the ground floor, is Kaushik’s magical Who live in glass houses installation.

Puneet Kaushik's installation 'Who live in glass houses'. (Photo courtesy: ShopArt ArtShop/Facebook.)
Puneet Kaushik's installation 'Who live in glass houses'. (Photo courtesy: ShopArt ArtShop/Facebook.)

At the nearby Mud Shop, where ceramic artist Mudita Bhandari has been working on a terracotta installation for the festival’s finale, Monica, a local high school girl, turns up every day without fail. She wants to learn from Bhandari what all can be done with clay.

Virtual village

One of the foreign artists participating in the project is Ksenia Bosak, a young web designer from Russsia, who has designed a colourful virtual village, a fun way to explore the village from anywhere in the world.

New Zealand-based author Sue Fitzmaurice has been documenting the everyday happenings at the festival in her blog. Language is a barrier, but she wrote that villagers, shy yet intrigued by her pink hair, usually warm up to her.

For the village kids, who usually confine themselves to seeking careers in the army, police or government, this project is a window to the world.

Vichitra Thakur, the deputy pradhan of Gunehar, is happy to see so many women involved in the project. “So many women artists stay and work here,” said Thakur. “This will influence our girls to be independent.”

Schlichtmann too is pleased with the success of the second edition of the festival. “More guests are coming from outside, and the projects are really great,” he said. “I feel both objectives are fulfilled – to make villagers engaged and happy, and to be on top of our ability in art. This has put the village back in the centrestage. The mela is now an art mela.”