A Cast of Thousands
ShopArt has a dozen lead actors, but the list of extras reads like a Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings epic. No Orcs though. Definitely a few Hobbits. Fabulous mountain scenery.
Unquestionably top of the list is Suman Devi, who runs Frank’s house, the Four Tables restaurant, the kitchen, and generally solves an array of other issues. Suman’s ready smile and giggle belie the toughness of an elder daughter brought up in the mountain village of Bara Bhangal, 20 km (as the crow flies) up into the mountains behind Gunehar, at an altitude of 5,500m; Gunehar is just 1,500m.
Bara Bangal – the most isolated village in the world.
Suman can turn her hand to most things and is an accomplished seamstress and weaver. Her word is law in her own household and I wouldn’t piss her off in a hurry. She’s ably assisted by Pooja, a young village girl, and Tekchand – known as Teku – Suman’s younger brother, who thinks he’s very funny and isn’t at all but you can’t help but laugh anyway. Teku does the heavy work and what Suman tells him. Together they’re also a big brother/uncle and sister/mother to Alook, Frank’s 8-year-old son.
L to R: Teku, Puneet, Pooja & Suman in the kitchen; Teku, Frank, Puneet & Suman at 4Tables restaurant; Suman.
Over the last month a minimum 20 people have descended on Frank’s house three times daily to eat, often with their laundry, frequently with other problems: there’s no water, my lights have all gone, there’s a scorpion in my bedroom, that kind of thing… I’ve not yet seen a problem Teku can’t fix, unless the power’s out to the whole village and when that returns is anyone’s guess.
Everyone’s had a landlord, or even two, in the village, either for a shop or a house or both. Mostly shops and houses were given for free, and in almost all cases much more was given as well. Maniram owns the house opposite Frank’s. Several people have stayed there and it’s also been an office space with additional internet that most of us have traipsed in and out of every day, through Maniram’s garden and past his front porch. He’s been nothing but gracious at so many intrusions.
Maniram on his verandah. Photo courtesy Amrit Vatsa.
Mahender Kapoor (left) has been Puneet Kaushik’s shop landlord and could not do enough for him, even allowing us to store cold beer in his shop fridge because we had no fridge in our house. But don’t tell anyone because really he’s not supposed to do that. (No one in the village has a license to sell alcohol.)
Kashmir Kapoor – not related to Mahender – was our most frequent driver. One doesn’t rent a car here; one hires a car (usually a small Indian Maruti) with a driver. You really don’t want to drive. The roads are very narrow, a good proportion of drivers are just plain crazy, and there are very few signposts. We had a couple of crazier drivers during our stay – you take your life in your hands! Kashmir was the perfect driver. And also very cheeky. Definitely a Hobbit.
Usually wherever you’re going your driver waits in his car till you’re ready to return. Another of our driver’s, Santosh, got so involved in what we were doing one day he ended by becoming an artist himself, if only briefly. We had to get three of Puneet’s giant round mirrors to the stream. Santosh volunteered to carry one from the end of the road to the river and then Puneet just shoved an i-pad in his hand and said ‘Keep clicking!’ Santosh got right into it! He was invaluable that day and I’m sure he enjoyed participating, as indeed many villagers have.
A string of photographers have been recruited and/or turned up to document the project and generally assist in photographing art works. Mallik Arjun was the first and primary photographer and he’s variously recruited Mohammad Faisal and Samridhi Upadhyay, and in the last week two German tourists, Harold and Andreas turned up.
A troop of Kangra miniature painters were recruited by Gargi Chandola to give life to her village murals, now a major feature of the village square.
Gargi Chandola with two of the Kangra painters: Deepak Bhandari and Atul Kumar.
Various villagers were hired or just showed up to help where some particular art project captured their attention. Notably, Pooja Kapoor who worked with Rema Kumar on her Gaddi fashion project; and Monica, a young villager fascinated with Mudita Bhandari’s ceramics project.
Pooja Kapoor helps one of the village girls try on one of Rema Kumar’s Gaddi fashions. photo courtesy Rema Kumar.
Frank’s son, Alook, and Puneet and Rema’s daughter, Yasho, and her cousin Kanishk, all played important roles in researching and developing the village kids’ movie, an adaptation of Star Wars.
Yasho, Kanishk, Alook and KM Lo, at the ‘Star Wars’ premiere in the village. photo courtesy KM Lo.
Arguably the second most important person in the project (after Suman) was Chandni Jain. Chandni left her job earlier in the year in search of something new and has ended up temporarily in Gunehar, as Frank’s right-hand woman in administering the ShopArt project. Nothing is too much trouble for her, and I’ve been so impressed with the way she’s handled a myriad of challenges with incredible calm and maturity.
And the list goes on and on…
I was in Gunehar for four weeks exactly and it was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life for a million different reasons, not least of which was to witness such an abundance of good will among so many, most particularly the villagers themselves. It’s rare these days, it seems, to find such openness and correspondingly such a lack of fear or mistrust, among a group of people, and this was remarked upon by many of us often. The privilege of being ‘allowed in’ was humbling, and an experience that speaks straight to one’s heart. It’s not something one feels one could ever re-pay, but we will each take our experience of Gunehar into the world in our own ways and we won’t ever forget it. Not ever.
Thank you, Gunehar. We love you.