Fine Art, Finer Air In Himachal’s Gunehar
Sipping steaming green tea, I lean over the wooden gate fencing my boutique property in Himachal, lost in thoughts of nothingness. A cool morning breeze caresses my face and I warm up to the faint rustle of cherry blossoms across the stoned pathway, watching the routineness of early morning village life unfurl slowly: An elderly villager is guiding his flock of gaddi, a breed of sheep so wooly, so adorable, they look straight out of a baby’s touch-and-feel book; trailing the man is his gritty better-half, fuelwood strapped on her back in a conical Himachali Kilta. In the distance, against the hill-hugging horizon, I spot some schoolkids hurtle downhill, yodeling on their way to Bir, the closest town and the landing site for India’s paragliding hub of Bir-Billing.
I’m in Gunehar—and it’s gripping from the word go.
The submontane Himachali village is nestled within the Shivaliks, barely two hours by road from McLeod Ganj, past the tea plantations of Palampur and the sacred town of Baijnath. The drive winds through lively hillock settlements and burbling streams, but it was the snow-crusted Dhauladhar that had kept me company all along, until I had unwillingly outdistanced its enchantment.
It was late last night when I arrived at The 4Rooms, a mud house painstakingly restored employing local techniques, and lets, as its name suggests, only four rooms. Dumping my luggage, I had straight dashed off to The 4tables. Inside the art café, famished from the hours on the road, me and some other art buffs had noshed scrummy pizzas with liberal seasonings of chilli oil discussing contemporary art and Kangra’s history. Obvious subjects given the occasion: Gunehar was in the midst of hosting the second edition of In the Woods, a conceptual art exhibition part of the larger Trigarth Kangra Valley Festival, which is organised by the Himachal government every November. The café is also where I first met Frank Schlichtmann, a 50-something Indian-German, who had wood fired the pizzas so perfectly that I had eaten more than I had an appetite for. Pizza genius apart, Frank is the man behind the hotel, the café, and In the Woods. In the past, his often self-funded triennial has drawn names such as British-Indian pop artist Ketna Patel, Delhi-based illustrator Gargi Chandola and Hong Kongs’ guerrilla filmmaker K.M. Lo. They have all set shops in Gunehar, transforming this little-known Himachali village into a vivacious canvas, pulling in crowds upwards of 5,000, probably the largest the village has ever seen.
I am in a mela, or so I feel when I step out for a stroll, walking past mud houses dunk in shades of blue, green and purple, miniature Kangra motifs featuring flowers, shepherds and animals painted bright on their walls. A little further up, I notice a crowd around a spot. I climb the ascent and take a seat on a bench, which is essentially a few wooden-and-stone planks stacked together. Soon, words of seven up-and-coming poets, played on loop through speakers mounted on deodars and pines, start to reverberate through the forest. My day and mood both start on a lyrical note.
A little off the main market, past busy grocery stores and away from the festival’s hubbub, Gunehar continues to surprise me with its Himalayan landscape on a walk towards a brook down somewhere. Conical deodars canopy the pathway, their leaves glistening with pearly dewdrops. I encounter a span of mules, wearers of the prettiest multicoloured saddles, trotting uphill behind their master. Frenetic in their search for a brekkie are a few frustrated Indian paradise flycatchers. In contrast, the pheasants are happily binging on wild berries, found in abundance here, this I can tell from the sheer number of seeds I have had to dodge.
A Bara Bhangali lady in a salwar kurta and rahide (a colourful bandana-like headscarf unique to this region) joins me on my uphill walk. I’m huffing and puffing, struggling to keep pace with her quick, swift strides, and still making small talk. She rues about how some villagers are migrating to Delhi for better prospects, something she herself would never do: “Why would I want to leave nature and its crisp air and move to Delhi to inhale poison?” (A statement I had then dismissed as an overreaction doesn’t seem so out of place today, given Delhi’s present-day pollution problems.)
Her mood however changes as quickly as the weather in the mountains and post a brief lull in our conversation she invites me over for some pahadi chai. I have tried the beverage before. It’s unusually sweet! But that’s not why I say no. I must head back, but not before I thank her for her hospitality. Locals here, by and large, are friendly. That’s because Gunehar and its neighbouring areas were once pit stops for Indian and Central Asian traders travelling along the trans-Himalayan route. Gunehar had always been a settlement for the pastoral tribe of Gaddis, who still troupe down to their winter homes from the higher Himalayan reaches to trade in sheep wool, summer crops and Himalayan herbs, en route to the plains.
Later that night in the hotel, as I sit in a gazebo gazing at the pitch-dark sky, my head is noiseless, my thoughts clear and my being calm. The simple pleasures of minimalist living in Gunehar had been an escape from the never-ending complications of city life. And in that solitary moment, brief as it might have been, the only book that comes to my mind is Thoreau’s Walden.