Around two hours drive from the Dharamshala airport, off the highway leading to Mandi and nestled in the Kangra valley, is a small Himalayan village that is trying to make its presence felt on the Himachal tourism map, thanks to Frank Schlichtmann, a German Indophile who has lived here for nearly a decade. Gunehar was once a prosperous way-stop on the trans- Himalaya caravan route, but has since fallen into bad times. Schlichtmann has been trying to change this situation, with his 4tables project, which aims to create “a space for alternative and meaningful living”. As part of this effort, he has set up a gallery, a café, an ecological boutique hotel and has also helped beautify the village and restore its traditional buildings. Everything has been “carefully planned and implemented in a manner not to destroy the fabric of the village, yet to develop the village into an alternative destination based upon the idea of quality, responsibility and non-destructive development.”
Schlichtmann’s biggest success by far, and the one that has brought the village into the limelight, has been ShopArt ArtShop, a triennial conceptual art exhibition that attracts artists from across the country and abroad. For about a month, every three years, the whole village is turned into an art gallery, with the active participation of the residents. According to the organizers, the idea is to give artists “the opportunity to relate to and work on arts in a wholesome manner outside the confines of the usual, urban-centric art spaces.” The artists spend three weeks staying in the village and work in abandoned houses and shops, to create art that uses local infrastructure while being mindful of local sensibilities.
The gamut of their art work cuts across various disciplines, including music, installations, painting, drama, fashion and films, and the final work is presented to the locals and visitors during a village-wide art festival. The first edition in 2013 of ShopArt ArtShop, which featured 13 emerging artists, drew more than 6,000 visitors. The monthlong second edition, which finished last month, involved 11 contemporary artists, and attracted more than 10,000 visitors.
The third edition will take place in 2019, but visitors have much to admire in the village in the interim, including remnants of the previous art projects as well as the chance of enjoying life in a bucolic and remote Indian village. The restored, but still rustic, mud and stone house of an old time trader, which is now an ecological boutique hotel, will be an experience by itself.
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