On my first stroll through the vertical streets of Old Manali village I was overcome with the sense that crass tourism had completely ruined what must have been as little as a decade ago a charming and picturesque rural settlement in Himachal Pradesh. The ‘two for one’ cocktails special signs in various shades of neon garishly navigate my route past cheap clothing stores, over-priced cafés advertising ‘Western food’, and tour booking companies with internet facilities attached.
I found myself quickly nauseated by ‘vacation-hippies’ furiously updating statuses on their iPads, whilst nipping into dread-lock and body piercing parlours. Moreover, the village water, sewage and electricity supply was groaning and halting under the strain of party-goers, as demand draws more dollar-eyed Indian investors to construct on the ancient mossy slopes.
This was unexpected: It’s quite an effort to get up to Manali and I reckoned the worst of this type of jiggery-pokery was confined to Goa. My false presumption illuminates a disconnect from the global hashish-hot-spot trail, clearly. Dodging the continuous wafts of violently sweet and potent air, a sign for an art gallery in Green Guest House caught my eye.
Bathed in Jodhpur blue, and perched above the street on three levels with a fascinating wrought iron, peacock enveloped railing along the many staircases and balconies, Green is a small and vibey – albeit a tad ramshackle – establishment. Off the balcony restaurant area is small rectangular room with wonderfully expansive windows looking out onto the rolling green hills of the southern Himalayas. This is the art gallery-cum-chill-out lounge scattered with low tables, cushions and carpets in fading geometric shades of burnt orange, deep red, ultramarine and yellow ochre. The walls were scandalously bare and smoke-stained with haphazardly arranged and obscure works in need of a dust and a spark of life.
I engaged the owner, Sharma, in some business talk: The idea of having an evolving and collaborative gallery, in which travelling artists can display their work, is brilliant and really gives his guest house an edge over the numerous competitors on the street otherwise offering identical specs. However, no one’s additions are going to look in the slightest bit appealing with walls in that state, and a rearrangement of the current display is needed, with a wash of movement here and there. I offered to do a couple of paintings and to give them to Green to kick-start the concept back into life.
Sharma is a man with a keen eye for business and so a deal was struck. We agreed to catch a rickshaw into Manali town immediately to purchase some materials for me to begin painting. Due to the pre-eminence of exceptional talent in crafts and entrepreneurship, fine arts, and the bits and bobs needed to make it happen, is not given much importance in India: we found 25ml bottles of ‘craft time’ paints and some chopping knives.
As the waves of misty rain swept through the pine-framed windows and into my spacious and welcoming room in Tiger Eye Guest House, it was clear to me that I could not use any form of paper or material to paint on. Wondering about back-alleyways of the village between cow patties, ancient pine bungalows, water-pipes and broken concrete, I found a pile of pine tree chunks, sliced in half with an appropriate degree of nonchalance to allow for the fascinating irregularities of nature to be preserved. I picked up some scrap wood beams and boards and headed home.
In conversation with the owner of Tiger Eye, Mr Kuman, I found out who owns the wood and that I would be able to take one piece for my art. Mr Kuman effortlessly arranged the rendezvous with the wood cutter, and I had my main canvas.
The poor quality thin paint, which mixed and slithered in a psychedelic fashion, was perfect in my attempt to immolate the beautiful patterns in the wood and work with what Old Manali had so generously provided me. I also found the undulating curves and rounded globules to be very sensual, which made me look at the rigid and rough lines of trees differently – as if a barky exterior contains the inner femininity of morphing strokes and shapes, warmer in colour and fiercer in expression.
I wanted the paint to move with the wood and give space for Old Manali to be seen, as if to prompt the psychedelic spurt of change and growth through tourism to do the same. I see unhindered raw energy in the running colours, and the knots of wood as stagnancy. This stasis is not negative however; it is a conscious reflection of time and a pooling of energy, only to be released afresh. Impressions of this pattern can be read into the personal, natural and/or social.
Flowing in consideration with the peaks and troughs of economic, social and seasonal time, I hope that the idea behind Green art gallery is an accessible start of a more communicative and healthy exchange between village and tourist.
See the following post for the poetry associated with “Knots”.