Situated at 7,250 feet, Khati in Uttarakhand, the last village en route to the Pindari and Khasni glaciers, is now a living art gallery, thanks to the efforts of travelling artists. Its 70 houses are painted with local anecdotes, in a collaborative effort by Hans Foundation and Project Fuel. For Deepak Ramola, this celebration of rural culture, the second in his Wise Walls project, is a continuing attempt to improve the social visibility of forgotten villages.
On a trip to Nagaland, Ramola, with muralist Poornima Sukumar, conceived the idea to “paint an entire village with its life experiences”. In 2017, the first Wise Walls project took shape in the 300-year-old ghost village of Saur in Uttarakhand. Seeing the potential of art to bring visibility and garner external support, Lt Gen SM Mehta, CEO of the Hans Foundation, reached out to Ramola, asking, “Would you want to paint the village of Khati? It takes two-and-a-half days to get there.” His outfit is involved in integrated village development projects across Uttarakhand.
Trek of change
On the Pindar river, Khati is completely cut off, with no electricity, telephone or motorable road. The weather is unpredictable, too: sun, rain, hail and snow all in one day, making painting outdoors a challenge. Sukumar, who managed the art programme at Saur, was the natural choice to spearhead the project. Forty artists, volunteers and community influencers travelled there in March — hiking the last five kilometres and transporting their tubs of exterior emulsion paint on mule back to the glacier’s edge — where they worked in three batches for over a month. They even had volunteers from abroad, like Scotsman Toran Wolstencroft, who crowdfunded his trip.
At Saur, only 12 families remained, most having migrated. In comparison, there were 450 people at Khati and the team had an intimate involvement. “It was important to put the community first and leave our egos and personal styles behind,” says Sukumar. “The villagers gave suggestions about how they wanted to be portrayed.” Ramola discovered inspiring tales of courage in his interviews, and then brainstormed with Sukumar to decide which stories could make strong artworks. A 100-year-old woman reminisced about life during Partition, while a young woman, Hema, spoke about how she started a tailoring shop so villagers did not have to trek to the next town. The artists painted a sewing machine with Hema’s Tailoring Shop on her wall to give her more visibility. To depict these voices as well as revive local traditions, Sukumar derived her style palette from the regional Kumaon painting style, Aipan.
“The project documents the history of the village. We are planning to set up a museum where all this will be preserved in writing,” says Mehta, while Ramola adds, “Many times, the people in these villages cannot read, but wall murals will communicate their stories.” The painting is the first step in a Wise Walls project, followed by a community-needs assessment. For instance, in Saur, the collaborative sponsored two educators to live there and teach the children computers. They also had a village experience festival in December with workshops and cultural nights. In Khati, they hope trekkers would have a reason to pause and explore now, that a homestay could begin, and tourists would become mediums to tell the world about it. But for Sukumar, the impact is intangible and heartfelt, making a social connect, as the villagers tell her, “Whenever I see the wall, I’m going to remember you.”