Art & Design Students on a Magical, Mystery Tour
Athen, Roshni and Karishma are proving themselves pretty intrepid for third year art and design students from Bangalore. For their summer break, before the fourth and final year of their degree, they took on 6-week internships with Delhi-based artist Vibha Gilhotra. Vibha had been invited to participate in ShopArt and so the three found themselves in a remote village in the Himalayas for what they thought was going to be 10 days. The project though is a month long, so like they rest of us they’re still here. Vibha returned to Delhi after the first few days and will be back in Gunehar at the end of the project, meaning these three young artist-designers have had to get on and make Vibha’s vision a reality, learning to improvise and adapt along the way. It’s a kind of an off the deep end internship. Oh and they don’t really speak Hindi either, and the villagers don’t really speak English. Fun.
Athen, Roshni, Layla (intern with Ketna Patel), and Karishma, at The Four Tables, Gunehar.
Food for Thought is an unusual project for an arts festival, but as with the other artists’ projects there are themes running through it to do with tradition and change, what is retained, what is thrown out, and what is adapted. They are much talked about concepts and ideas and seemingly unavoidable talking points through many of the ShopArt artists’ experiences here in the village.
Food for Thought has three parts, philosophically themed ‘Where have we come from?’, ‘Where are we now?’ and ‘Where are we going?’
Part One has focused on ferreting out traditional cooking and recipes among the older residents of the village, some of which is already lost to younger villagers and indeed may soon be lost altogether. The students are putting together a cook book with 15 or so recipes they’ve collected. Not only that, they’ve filmed the preparation of much of this cooking and eaten it.
Perhaps most ambitious has been the construction of a traditional stove in their ‘shop’ on the main road just before the village square. During the festival they and villagers will be preparing and serving food from here. Several thousand visitors are expected to the festival starting next week which will certainly stretch the village’s capacity to cater, not least since there’s not much more than a cup of tea and a bowl of Maggi noodles on offer at the couple of tea shops in the square. I’m sure Food for Thought will do a roaring trade.
Part Two of Food for Thought has focused on gathering stories from villagers about their lives, what they believe in, their aspirations, and so on; a pot-pourri of photo stories. One interesting phenomenon is the career ambitions of most of the teenagers. The young men all want to go into the army or the police force; these are prestigious positions with retirement incomes – there is no retirement pension for ordinary Indians. Many of the girls also want to join the police; there’s been a popular television show in India with a female heroine who became a policewoman.
Part Three looks at some of the future implications of choices being made now, particularly agriculturally and food-wise. Already there are traditional seeds lost, certain foods no longer grown, and a desire for fertilizers and sprays, albeit that one of the common sprays is coca-cola! Much of tradition is being lost to economic interests of course. Why hand weave a fancy pattern into a rug when you can weave a plain rug and stamp the pattern on? Especially if no one’s going to pay you anything extra for the woven design.
Roshni, Karishma and Athen didn’t really know what they were letting themselves in for when they came to Gunehar a few weeks ago. If they’d had to guess, this wouldn’t have been it. What they’ve got from it though makes for a great list.
They’ve been able to hang out with a group of other artists, all working in different expressions: fabric, design, installation, ceramic, painting, illustration… Seeing and talking with some of the younger artists – Sheena and Gargi especially – has given them a confidence about how they really can just get on and be artists. Seeing how the other artists work and how they’ve developed their interests has been informative. Athen hasn’t been sure where he would focus after his degree finishes. Heir to a coconut oil business, he has a back-up plan, but he’s got some more ideas now. He’s especially enjoyed watching how Amrit (3-minute documentary film-maker) works, and seeing and understanding Frank’s vision has left an impression on him. Frank doesn’t refer to himself as an artist, although he’s the founder and main curator of this amazing project, which by any ordinary definition probably puts him in the artist category.
Roshni’s travelled as far afield as Europe before with her parents, but after her month-long stay in Gunehar she’s realised there’s a different way to travel, by staying for extended periods and really getting to know an area and its people. ‘We’re not here sightseeing; we’re really talking to people, and they’re opening up to us and inviting us into their homes even.’ That’s the kind of travel she’d like to do more of.
As Athen says: ‘The villagers are so very sweet and curious and open. They want to talk to us and they ask a lot of questions. I don’t think you see this many places, this openness.’
One of the key values and goals of ShopArt has been to give emerging artists the opportunity to rub shoulders with experienced artists; another has been to give city-dwellers an insight into Indian village life that might hopefully influence their own artistic expression in the future. Overwhelmingly that experience has not been about what’s missing from this simpler way of life – despite the slow loss of some aspects of tradition – but instead it’s about what the village has to offer. A cliché maybe, but nonetheless: Food for Thought.