10 Sep 2017 16:10 IST

An artist’s impression

Kalga is transforming into a collaborative haven for artists from India and elsewhere

Nestled in the stoner-tourism hotspot that is Himachal Pradesh’s Parvati Valley, there is a small hilltop hamlet called Kalga. The relatively isolated village — it’s a 30-minute trek from the nearest village with a motorable road — is one of Himachal’s hidden gems. Its idyllic mountain beauty and traditional Himachali houses (most converted into homestays) have made it a destination for travellers looking to unwind, away from the hustle and bustle of the State’s many tourist traps. For most of the year, Kalga remains a quiet, sleepy village, with the income from its apple and apricot orchards supplemented by a small handful of travellers. But for six weeks a year, it comes alive as it plays host to a group of experimental artists from India and abroad as a part of Karma Yatri Travel and Art (KYTA), an experimental art residency started in 2014 by Hashim Qayoom, co-owner of travel agency Karma Yatri, in collaboration with curator Shazeb Arif Shaikh.

Over the past three years, more than 30 artists from India and countries including France, USA, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, South Africa and Switzerland have made the trek to Kalga, where they get to spend a month in a traditional village home — complete with an outdoor loo — and collaborate on experimental artworks in mediums ranging from sound, technology and new media to sculpture, film and performance art. This September, KYTA will return to the village with its biggest residency programme yet, hosting 17 artists from India, Switzerland and South Korea in collaboration with global culture institutions such as Pro Helvetia-Swiss Arts Council and South Korea’s Artlabban. Along the way, they’ve turned this sleepy little hamlet into a much sought-after destination on the Indian art map.

“Hashim had been going to the place for many years, and he realised that it would be the perfect space for an art residency,” Shaikh tells me over coffee at his office in Mumbai. “We look at KYTA as a travel and art experiment. He handles the travel and living part of it while I handle the art.”

The first edition in 2014 saw artists from India, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brazil and France collaborate on a 22-minute short film, focussed on Taiwanese performance artist Wei Ching-ju interacting with site-specific installations created during the residency. For the bilateral French-Indian 2015 edition, they expanded that to a 60-minute feature film with an experimental approach before shifting gears and encouraging artists to create their works independently and in collaboration.

Qayoom and Shaikh initially planned to take the residency someplace else for the second year, but after giving it some thought they decided to return to Kalga. “I realised it didn’t make sense for us to re-invest all the time and money we’d spent in setting things up in Kalga in another place,” Qayoom tells me over the phone from Himachal Pradesh. “Kalga is also unique because it gives us this amazing autonomy. It’s got about 35 houses but only three families stay there throughout the year, the rest are homestays and apple orchards.”

Apart from pragmatism, the decision to stay in Kalga was also informed by the duo’s changing vision for the project. By its third iteration, KYTA had evolved from an art residency to a five-year project with multiple creative engagements. The aim was an economically sustainable, eco-friendly model arts village that would attract artists and travellers while avoiding the pitfalls of the usual tourist traps. This mission has been made more urgent by plans to connect Kalga by road and by the upcoming completion of the nearby dam in Barshaini. “The reason we enjoy Kalga so much and find so much amazing inspiration is because of the essence of the village,” explains Shaikh. “So we hope that our work will entice the relevant kind of travellers to come there rather than your usual tourist. Maybe then, over the years it isn’t taken over by cement and concrete, and the waste management and all those things are taken care of in a better way.”

As part of the project, KYTA has been investing in setting up permanent artistic facilities in the village. The 2017 edition will see them establish an experimental audio environment that they call ‘Synth In A Room’. A bedroom-sized room will be transformed into an analog synthesiser, with multiple modules all over the walls. The space can also serve as a bedroom studio for visiting musicians and producers. There are also plans for a microprogramming make-space and a basic workshop with tools for wood, stone and soft metal. Many of the works created during the residency have been added to a growing private art collection in the village, while others are documented as a part of an online archive. And to further drive the art world’s attention and engagement with Kalga, this year will see the last four days of the residency being an ‘open showcase’, where people from all over the country are invited.

“We’re only in Kalga for six weeks a year but these facilities will open the village up for artists to come and work here throughout the year,” explains Shaikh. “With the private art collection and this continuous creation happening there through these facilities, we’re hoping that it also becomes a place for people in the region to visit as a tourist or a traveller to see the artworks and experience the village.”

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine's BLInk.)