Photo: Girish Naphade
Photo: Girish Naphade

Exploring the boundaries of art in the hills of Haryana

An art residency tucked away in rural Haryana brings together artists from across the country and the world

To see a contemporary art residency explore all sorts of politically charged issues and yet flourish in a remote village of Haryana is as likely as the disappearance of khap panchayats—notorious for their caste and gender bias—from the state.

Yet that is precisely what has happened in Badisher, a small village in the Morni Hills block about 50km from Chandigarh, which has hosted more than 100 artists from across India and the globe over the past three years.  

This has become possible because of a unique collaborative approach adopted by the artists at Healing Hill Art Space, a residency for practitioners of art across genres and mediums—dancers, musicians, poets and visual artists. It was created in 2015 by Mohali-based performance artist Harpreet Singh, who taught art in Africa and New Zealand for over two decades, after doing his masters in art from Banaras Hindu University.

When he returned to India, the art market’s high tide, which had lasted till the middle of the 2000s, was ebbing. Indian art’s success story didn’t last long because the country hadn’t worked on the grassroots infrastructure for art, he felt.

The biggest handicap for the majority of young graduates who come out of the regional art colleges fail is lack of exposure, which keeps them out of sync with contemporary art practices. On top of this, most visual art colleges work in isolation. An absence of interaction with practitioners of other art forms, like music, dance, cinema and literature, further limits their potential, says Singh. 

Art residencies could fill this gap by offering affordable space to young artists to collaborate, he adds. For the large number of graduates in India every year, though, the number of residencies is negligible. 

Most residencies in India are out of reach for the struggling artist. Many cost as much as Rs2,000-3,000 per day. And a few, like Khoj International Artists’ Association in Delhi, select only the very brightest. Andretta, another residency in Himachal Pradesh, is mostly restricted to students of Punjabi University, Patiala.

Healing Hill Art Space provides basic facilities for artists who pay less than Rs1,000 for a week’s stay, which includes a shared room, meals and an opportunity to evolve by working with artists—in diverse disciplines—from across the country and the world.

The residency, fully funded by Singh, began with just four rooms in 2015. It now houses 30 artists in its present building, and has recently added a state-of-the-art dance studio. Singh used his earnings from work abroad and from selling ancestral land to build this. For the first art biennale in 2016, the artists who came to residency were sponsored by, among others, the Canadian Art Council, the Asia New Zealand Foundation and the Swedish Art Council.

Singh, whose search for this property lasted two years, wanted a place away from urban chaos but close enough to ensure good road connectivity. Himachal Pradesh, he felt, was best suited for the art residency, but only domiciles can buy land in the state. The Morni Hill area in Haryana is adjacent to Himachal and topographically similar, and so Singh eventually decided to settle there.

Local connect

Students of art from the region are encouraged to collaborate with senior artists in residency, and more importantly, all art projects have some degree of participation by the local population. There is even a cowshed and a facility for organic farming with the villagers, to help artists get a feel for rural life. 

Villagers at Badisher feel the residency has touched their lives in multiple ways. “About 15 of our boys got employment. With so many people coming here, kuchcha (untarred) roads were tarred and roadways buses are forced to stop at the village. Our women never looked beyond the chulha (stove), now our girls and boys talk of so many things," says Ajay Singh, 35, the village sarpanch. 

All employees at the residency are locals. (The construction was carried out entirely by local workers too.) There are two cooks and two caretakers for the residency, apart from construction workers, an electrician, a plumber and three volunteers, who take artists on treks.

The artists get an opportunity to explore cultural, historical and political intersections with the village community, which is involved in the ideation, facilitation and execution of the art projects. For the first project, “Peepal Tree Art Residency", in 2015, Haryanvi mandali singers played a key role.

Another project, completed last month and titled “Mother Tongue", curated by Alexa Wilson, explored the convergence of diverse nationalities, races, languages, politics and cultures in a small village. This group had 24 participants, mostly performance artists from England, Russia, Germany, New Zealand, Canada, Philippines, Lithuania, America and Norway. The perspectives of the residents of the village became part of the project too. 

The performance artists use their body as a dynamic canvas—letting boundaries of mime, theatre, dance and music merge. Involvement of all senses lends their art an irresistible force.

Vicky Kapo, indigenous Maori artist from New Zealand, ties rocks and bricks to her neck as she pulls herself against the weight—a statement against humankind's exploitation of the earth without a care. 

Kyah Dove lies down, inviting visitors to stop by and pray for the entire feminine bloodline of mothers. “My blood is perfect," says a board, with a symbol of menstrual blood placed beside, a call against the deeply patriarchal social hierarchy.

Caroline Kunzle from Canada, in a nuanced approach to understand the gender and caste matrix of the village, recorded the voices of local women. A doctor’s wife, a teacher, a farm worker, a Rajput girl and an old matriarch talked about their experiences of finding their voice in a society dominated by patriarchy.

For a theatrical production, “Women of the Hills", female artists in the residency enacted each of the women interviewed, reading aloud from a script based on the interviews. In their enactment of the village women, who shared their simple joys of raising family and dark secrets of rape and incest, the artists discovered their own voices too. 

“Their experiences are dissimilar in the cultural context and yet similar at experience level," says Kunzle. 

Jonny Rowden from UK/Australia stood on the roof of the residency building, wearing only his underpants, questioning his power and privileged position as a white man. He asked other artists to use a sketch pen to write on his body with what they think are his privileges, and with suggestions on how he can be less oppressive and arrogant.

Visitors mostly comprise art students from nearby art colleges, from Chandigarh, Patiala, Ludhiana and even Nabha, who come to Badisher. The artists in residency also perform before crowds in places like Morni Hill (which has a busy tourist resort), the main vegetable market and in Chandigarh. 

If the performance finds resonance with the privileged male position in the local community, it is left unsaid. The artists also explore gentle reminders of femininity, lost in the wake of a power-driven masculine world—for instance, the simple joys of weaving and knitting. Like the village women, artists invite the viewer to participate and relax for a while and indulge in casual chit-chat. 

Shri Krishna, 29, a local resident, regrets not knowing before the residency came to their village that art is serious business. He went to a crafts school, but never knew its worth, he says.

“Who knows? Our school might produce artists one day," he says. “All resident artists interact with our schoolchildren and involve them in projects. Since villages are scattered across the hills, resident artists go to the secondary school in Badisher, where children from all the neighbouring villages come. The artists interact with the children and involve them in projects. Now even our children can respond to a foreigner in English, they don’t hesitate like other village children."

He doesn’t have to wait. A cobbler’s shop in Badisher stands out with its unfailing aesthetic. Unlike a nondescript, cobbler’s corner you’d expect in a village, this one has visual appeal, with a little help from one of the artists.

For a thriving pool of talent that needs opportunities to evolve, the Healing Hill residency bridges the gap between local aspirations and global practitioners of art, making collaboration a real possibility.

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