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Reflections on SHOPART/ARTSHOP; modern arts in India On the 21st of May, I stood among a crowd of some 1500 people, watching

a concert. The singer was rocking the field, making the public go into a frenzy that was electric. Arms were raised in the air, feet swung, cries of appreciation filled the air. It was like any successful rock concert. Yet there were some significant differences. The singer was a Kullvi folk musician called Narender Thakur, the venue was a small village called Gunehar in the Himachal Hills, and the public comprised of a mix of old Guddi villagers, young local boys and girls, numerous foreign and urban expats and travellers and a group of young artists from all over India and beyond. This was the closing ceremony of an event called ShopArt/ArtShop, and it had all people dancing together as they should: indiscriminately. As I stood there, I felt emotions choking me. Several months of hard work had gone into the planning of this project, followed by three weeks of work by the artists I had finally chosen to be part of the project and a week of exhibition and events that had taken me to the edge of my physical and financial collapse. Yet I was gratified and happy, regretting nothing. Eight months ago, I had started ShopArt/ArtShop for a combination of purposes. Taking a walk through the village from my restaurant, 4tables, one day, I had passed the shuttered down and unfinished shops that lined the road, when the idea started formulating itself in my mind. I had long been feeling a need to bind my activities at 4tables to the village in a meaningful way. Since 4tables attracted quite a few cosmopolitan, urban guests, I had wondered how it could be possible to make some of these people go into the pretty Guddi village and interact with the villagers. Gunehar was once quite a flourishing little hub. A little fertile valley on the slopes of the Dhauladhar range, it is what can be said on the edge of two worlds: the plains of north India to the south and the mountain world of shepherds, semi-nomads and high altitude people to the north. Gunehar has lost its relevance as a trading station back in the 1960ies and in the new economy of these times it has been sidetracked by neighbouring towns such as Bir and the Tibetan settlement, both of which see a number of seasonal visitors interested in paragliding or Tibetan buddhism. I had been attracted to Gunehar due to the incredible beauty of the surrounding, and a wish to not be at the centre of the tourism trade. 4tables is a small place and an extension of my home, in which I live with my little boy the kind of life that I can't have disrupted by Enfield motorbikes and groups of crowds in search of a 'chill place to roll up in peace'. For this reason I have kept it exclusive, demanding of my guests a sense of sanctitude and taste. Though in a village, it is essentially a cosmopolitan space for the few who would watch a good movie, eat a good international meal, watch a jazz band play tunes that go with the vast fields that roll down below the terrace. Walking through the village that day, I knew that if I had to do something that would put the village onto centre stage, it had to be done with the same attitude with which I run 4tables: it had to be something modern, contemporary, unusual and inclusive. As my mind settled on the concept of filling these empty shops with artists and arts, I became convinced that this was in many ways a perfect idea.

In the following months, though, I would find out that not many people, neither in the Arts world nor in the development-oriented or the corporate world, would share my optimism. Modern, conceptual arts in a rural village, what objective would it fulfil? This kind of thing belonged in a city, since arts was an urban phenomenon. Why not do something, say basket weaving and other handicrafts, that will teach the villagers 'skills'? Who anyway will go to a remote village to see modern arts? And why should this kind of activity receive funding or sponsoring? What was ShopArt/ArtShop anyway: an art camp/residency? A rural development project? A village tribal arts initiative to which modern artists are invited to teach arts? A scam or ploy to attract money? A few months down this road, I started realising that if this was to be done, I would have to do it on my own. Initially, in my optimism of attracting some partners for the project, I had declared that I would put forward the entire profit 4tables had made the previous year into the project, a lakh rupees, to be matched by whoever else was willing to cooperate on the project. Now I knew better. A lakh rupees would not-- as I was clearly told by an 'emerging artists' gallerist in Delhi-- even enable me to 'hire' one of their artists for a month. Luckily, I did have some money saved up which I was planning to invest on my son's future, so I never thought of stopping. In fact, the more people said it was impossible, the more I thought it my duty to prove them wrong. And if I think back now, I realise that the fact that I had to do ShopArt/ArtShop alone was a boon in disguise. While I was driving back from Delhi that time, I understood how disconnected city people in India were from the country-side. To most of them, the countryside is backward, underdeveloped. They can't think of it without ready made templates of the mind: development, help, handicrafts, tribes... templates that are fit-for-all for rural area anywhere in India from Bengal to Rajasthan, from Himachal to Tamil Nadu. I wondered, what if this event was not in an Indian mountain village but in a little forgotten village in the provence? Would they still say: lets teach those French villagers handicrafts? My concept for ShopArts/ArtShop had been clear from the beginning, I would treat this venue as if it was any other venue, without connotations of any kind. I believe that Arts, especially modern, conceptual arts is nothing elitist but rather the opposite. Anybody exposed to Arts can grasp, at least partially and most definitely intuitively, the meaning of it. That is because good Arts captures the imagination. The challenge I faced, I knew, was to get artists to join the project who were not caught up in the great Indian rural-urban divide, who would take the space they are offered as a space with certain characteristics that, though different in an mountain village to a city gallery, though different in India to an European location, is still a legitimate space on the map of the world. Since the original idea was to fill up the empty shops with different arts form, it gave me the opportunity to choose among a wide range of artists those, whose concepts reflected the vast possibilities of conceptual arts. As the concepts started coming in and discussions progressed, I finally started finalizing a list of great young artists from all over India as well as abroad. I also knew that my aim, which was to demonstrate that Arts can be accessible to all, villagers as well as city dwellers, Indians as well as Weltenburger, can only be

fulfilled if firstly we all did not compromise on the quality of the artists and their work in Gunehar, and secondly, if the process of making arts was kept open and accessible. There should be no secretiveness about what we were doing. Though I am aware that for artists the process of creating arts is an extremely personal process, often involving doubts and soul searching, I had to get these people to work in an open space, usually an empty shop, in front of passers-by and curious people. The concept of ShopArt/ArtShop, convenient for me as curator, stated from the very beginning that the artists were to "open the empty shops of Gunehar daily from 10 to 5" and work for 3 weeks towards an exhibition in these spaces. This meant that every step, from cleaning up the shops to painting and setting then up, to beginning the work process to creating their work, everything had to be done under the eyes of the villagers and any visitors who came along. One of the first things I insisted upon was that each artist put up a sign board of their "shop", giving it a name for everybody to see. As time and work progressed and the meaning of the strange shop signs ("Aawaz ki Dukaan", "Phool ki Dukaan", "Tuk Tuk Cinema", "Akhbaar ki Furniture" etc.) started becoming clear, I could see how the interest and involvement of the villagers grew, transforming them from sceptic bystanders to careful participants and finally co-initiators who started taking pride in the work being done. That flowers can be pasted to walls or made into lampshades, that their everyday carry baskets could get a wrapping of neon strings and hang from a bamboo construction in an illuminated snow white shop, that a woman with microphones on her ears would go around in search of an obscure old ladies song and create a soundscape of their own voices and sounds, and that finally, when the exhibition started, visitors would start frequenting their otherwise forgotten village, all this very visibly made them extremely proud. It has to be stated clearly that except for a few laborers, no one earned any money during the project. Villagers gave us their empty shops and empty rooms for free, they helped wherever they could, they did anything we asked for without as much as a mumble of descent. It also has to be said that no artist was paid any fee except travel costs and living and material expenses. The best in every single person involved directly or indirectly with the project came out and made me proud, so that I do not in any way regret the bills I ended up paying, which still is substantial, or the 24 hours days I put in, or the personal toll it ended up taking also for my family, my two assistants and my son. Real good things are rewarding unmeasurably. I did pay Narender Thakur, because he was my gift to the village. One day towards the beginning of the planning process for ShopArts/Artsshop, I was driving in a local cab when I heard his voice for the first time. It was local music, the guy sang unendingly long, haunting songs, and he could carry you across anything. I asked the driver his name but the driver did not know it. Later, I found everybody was listening to his songs, yet no body was sure who he was. This intrigued me, since the songs were obviously extremely popular, more than all the other Bollywood pop. Gradually, his voice became the voice of the project for me and I kept telling people that I wanted him to play at ShopArt/ArtShop. When I finally found out his name and his number and talked to him, I saw that he was a shy man. I heard too that he had sold 200000 CDs the year before. 200000 CDs of Kullvi Folk Songs! It must have

been the quality of his music itself that sold those records, since his production company wasn't even "savvy" enough to publicize his name properly. By the time Narender Thakur was singing his second song on the last evening of ShopArt/ArtShop at the newly art-worked market square of Gunehar, he had the local youth on their feet. I was a little worried since we had a mixed public of more than a 1500 people and had not thought about security. Then I looked around. Slowly the whole crown started moving, young boys, tourists, expats, ladies, artists, kids, old men, even some of the elder village ladies. I saw the boys going round and round intuitively in their traditional dance as if they had never watched TV. I saw people sitting on roof tops and balconies and on plastic chairs getting up to clap and shout. Happiness was on all these faces, happiness that was real and had grown over the last 4 weeks.