Art in a small Indian village
SHOPART is the brain child of serial entrepreneur and innovator, Frank Schlictmann, a German-Indian, living in the very north of India in the province of Himachal Pradesh (literally, ‘in the lap of the Himalayas’).
Frank Schlictmann, centre, with Puneet Kaushik (right), Suman (front) who is Frank’s assistant and house manager, and her brother Teku (far left) who assists Suman in running the restaurant and many other things.
The village of Gunehar, whilst very small, is much like any other Indian village, with a single main street lined with small, garage-sized shops, some of which have been in the same family for decades. In the quite large village of Paprola, a half hour’s drive down the hill, we stopped in at a wedding shop that had been started by the current owner’s father in 1940. (Below: A store in a nearby Tibetan colony.)
Aside from these specialty shops, of which there are also many – although none really in Gunehar, which is very, very small – all the shops look much the same and sell much the same things, all displayed in much the same way. There is something very entrepreneurial about the Indian character and spirit, but it’s an undeveloped entrepreneurship, for wont of a better way of putting it; a desire to ‘sell’, but lacking a practical innovative quality, and often apparently lacking much in the way of cost-benefit consideration. On a dusty rural road, for example, one might see a single salesman with a washing line of large pink teddy bears, or a dozen concrete mixers, or twenty cane chairs of the same design. One can’t help but wonder how often a sale is made. Someone had an idea.
So it is into this context, and into a dozen of these shops – currently vacant – that SHOPART is going.
SHOPART brings a dozen successful artists from urban India, to set up and ‘do’ their art in a village shop. The theme of SHOPART is to explore, via art, the urban-rural divide, which is extreme in India, as extreme as the class divide, which itself is legendary.
Artists arrive and get to know each other and chat about their projects, in Frank’s back yard. This is also where we all meet for lunch and dinner together every day. There are a dozen artists and several support volunteers, and regular visitors.
There is no greater contrast than the sight of a giant billboard with a glowing Bollywood face advertising lightening skin cream (the implication: lighter skin is more attractive) on the roof of a tiny shop selling fruit and vegetables in a small village in the Himalayas. And yet I saw this same billboard a dozen times on the three-hour drive between Dharamsala and Gunehar. One wonders what the locals think when they see these huge advertisements; just as one wonders what they think at the sight of art from the city that is not of a type that is familiar to them. One imagines they are bemused at least, and it seems curious also.
Unlike the city, where people do not ‘connect’ to newcomers and strangers, here the villagers look up, smile, ask you questions and invite you in. Unlike the city, there is little English spoken, and so lacking in Hindi as I am, I must wander with my Hindi-speaking friends. I am a white woman, and particularly odd at the moment I am one with pink hair; they stare and smile and poke their friends, quite obviously saying ‘Look!’ I smile and wave and they smile more. Frank’s eight-year-old son asked ‘How did you get your hair like that?’ I said ‘Because I don’t eat enough vegetables.’ He was sceptical, and anyway he was more interested in his new light saber brought with us from London. Some things are the same everywhere.