Who says this village is deprived?
It would be easy to list the deprivations of Indian village life, especially somewhere as small and remote as Gunehar (pronounced Gu-neer).
Gunehar from the air (courtesy local paragliding venture).
Our house doesn’t have hot water; one day there was no water at all. There’s no air-conditioning or television. The internet’s pretty dodgy and can be interrupted entirely when the electricity goes off, which is an almost daily occurrence. We don’t have a fridge and we have to go to the next village to buy almost everything.
When you look around, the roads are a mess, there is no rubbish collection, houses are in various states of repair – one house I pass daily is “patched” with pieces of cardboard box – and many houses and buildings seem to have been left half-built for years.
photo (c) Puneet Kaushik
Most labour lacks the support of modern equipment and machinery, meaning most work takes infinitely longer. The villagers work very long hours, pretty much from sunrise to sunset, including the women – especially the women. And so of course one can certainly very easily wonder about gender equality.
On that question though, Gunehar is a matriarchal society. Property is passed through the women, and men marry into the woman’s family. (This is also the case in other parts of India, namely Kerala and in the north-east.) Women pretty much run the village. This is not the case ten minutes down the road in Bir (pronounced ‘beer’) where the patriarchy of property and marriage is the norm, although there is a formalised structure of local women’s councils (mahila mandal – ‘ladies council’) everywhere to ensure women’s concerns are voiced and addressed.
Gunehar’s gender difference is a factor of the predominance of the Gaddi and Bada Bangali tribal cultures; Gaddi historically lived in the most northern and mountainous regions of India. Gunehar is about 70% Gaddi. Gaddi racial and cultural origins aren’t altogether clear; they’re from an area in-between India and its northern neighbours of Tibet and Nepal. You can see that most of the villagers don’t look like most other Indians. Their religion is now largely Hindu but incorporating other elements, including, being matriarchal, more of the Goddess. Further north to Lahoul, villages are more likely to be Buddhist.
Over time the Gaddi have come down to these lower mountain regions in order to grow crops and provide pasture for their animals that is not available in the winter months further north.
So when we can understand just a little of this background we can maybe also begin to have a different understanding of what is a deprivation and what isn’t.
But more important is to look beyond simply an economic perspective as to what makes a good life. And there is no doubt that this simple life, despite its hardships, has advantages and benefits unequalled in an economically privileged town or city.
Of course I come from that economic privilege (which even more of the poorest in the West also come from), so I have the option to have a foot in two worlds, as I have right now. So you’d be within your rights to say “That’s easy for you to say!”
What happens when you begin to ‘develop’ a town like this, had you the resources to do so? Where do you start? Who decides the priorities? I’m a political science graduate and I know a few parts of this discussion. One thing is clear to anyone giving even the remotest consideration to that question: a country of more than a billion people – that’s grown from 330m in 1947 to 1.25bn now, that had a 7% literacy rate then that is now 75-80%, that had a life expectancy then of 47 that is now 72 – is nothing if not complex. Change doesn’t happen at a pace. And in Gunehar no one really wants it to.
And so the SHOPART project is not only not a development project, it’s almost a reverse development project. A big part of SHOPART’s philosophy is that a mix of sophisticated, educated Indian city-dwellers come here not to teach the village, but to learn from the village. Every artist is required to source all of their materials locally, and this has various challenged all of them, and consequently developed their resourcefulness as artists and as Indians.
The divide between city-dweller and villager is huge, make no mistake, but that doesn’t mean the divide is all about the negatives being on the village side.
As for me, I now have a huge appreciation for cold showers.