Walking swiftly along the rail track on the tiny platform at Maihar, on to which I have just descended from the train that brought me here, I turn to Ambica, my friendly hostess, who has very charmingly come by to pick me up. Maihar station, she tells me, has the highest footfall among all the railway stations in Madhya Pradesh. The reason? The ancient temple to Sharda Devi atop the afforested Trikuta hill overlooking this small mining town. Legend has it that when a fearsomely possessed Shiva roamed the earth with the body of his slain wife Sati, her necklace (haar) fell here, where she is revered as mai.
The invitation to ‘Mai’har—a secret retreat for India’s artist community—was intriguing, to say the least. Ambica Beri, who for 25 years has been running Gallery Sanskriti in Kolkata, left behind the glamour of bright city lights to start something new. Art Ichol is a heritage residency and ceramic studio, a writer’s retreat, and India’s first open-air studio for art works in stone, metal, wood, clay and fibreglass. It’s meant to serve as a creative escape, here amidst the back-of-beyond spaces of this hard-nosed limestone quarrying town, where Sanjiv, Ambica’s husband, runs a mining business.
I realise this weekend escape is going to be pretty unique when I reach Maihar House, the century-old walled family home of the Beri clan. For standing there, welcoming me, crowned by exuberant magenta bougainvillea, is a gigantic installation of the Devi—Narayan Sinha’s creation from all manner of metallic scrap. Slipping into the wraparound verandah, I’m greeted by an emerald lawn, onto which open most of the rooms as well as the common spaces, dining area and kitchen. It’s a perfect foil for the buttery lemon-yellow arches and blue tiles, which create the illusion of taking the humid bite out of late summer and slipping into a cool monsoon. At the end of the lawns, separated by a flagrant spill of foliage, stands the Ceramic Centre, around which lie scattered works left behind by artists as mementoes of their sojourn here.
My room, spacious and beautifully cool with the AC in full throttle, is comfy and inviting. About nine or ten rooms are available most of the time, with at least five facing the lawns, of which I have one near the Ceramic Centre.
Showered, changed, and fortified with an excellent breakfast, I jump aboard the vehicle that would transport me to Khajuraho, three hours away. Leaving behind the clutter of the town, we travel swiftly along the long and winding road. To my left, on the other side of the river Tamas, the Chambal hills rise gently to kiss and make up with a grumbling sky. To my right lie fallow fields, bereft of their gold from the mustard harvest, awaiting rain, as was I. Though it played truant then, the rain did show up late one afternoon before I left. And yes, the strains of Raag Malhar did play softly in the background, the dusty earth did dance to the tune of the raindrops, and I gorged on plump jamuns and mangoes plucked from the trees at Art Ichol. India’s saawan! Where better to savour its glorious wealth than in its rural tracts?
Maihar House mixes high-octane creativity with traditional Indian hospitality, and contemporary design with materials of old (Khaprail tiles, brick dust, and lime instead of cement). Suraj P. Sabharwal, Ambica’s Tagore lookalike papaji, who passed away recently, played a pivotal role in converting into vivid reality her ambitious dreams for Art Ichol.
On-site space, materials, tools and technical aid give free rein to the imagination. All around the vast complex, I discover sculptures in stone and metal. Ganesh Pyne, Paritosh Sen and Paresh Maity, Ambica’s familiars, have at some point or the other shared this rare and wondrous world of Art Ichol. Maity’s colossal installation, created with brass bells, stops me in my tracks.
Khaprael Kothi, the primary art centre, lets the outdoors inside with natural light and airy breeze. It’s steeped in the creative spirit, from the works of art housed within to the very structure itself. Along with this, of course, is the radical use of installations wrought out of scrap material rescued by designer Narayan Chandra Sinha from the Railways, the family mines, and even shipping yards down south. Mindboggling! The complex also houses aesthetically done residences, exclusively for artists who participate to work in these inspirational spaces.
Maihar has a very special place in Hindustani classical music. From Ambica’s ‘office desk’, I walk across to the lifelike sculpture of Baba Allauddin Khan Sahib who in 1918, spurred on by his patron Maharaja Brij Nath Singh, set up the Maihar Band of the Maihar Gharana, an instrumental group that plays both western and Indian music. Residing under the spreading mango tree, he is an undying inspiration for the band, which is invited to perform under starlit skies at Art Ichol on special occasions. Blooming mustard fields might appear to be dancing to their tune in the light of the full moon, applauded gently by a vagrant breeze. Shanti Kutir, Baba’s serene and simple abode, is also his mausoleum. The Maihar Band, which today keeps alive the astonishing legacy that nurtured the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar (who married Baba’s daughter Annapurna Devi), Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee, Pannalal Ghosh and Hariprasad Chaurasia. I had never heard a naltarang in my life—this innovation by the maharaja is a jaltarang created from the barrels (nali; ergo, nal) of guns!
I felt like a homing pigeon at Amaria—the writer’s retreat by the river Tamas, about seven kilometres from Art Ichol. The reflective mood of its serene setting, the scattering of mango and jamun trees on a verdant rise, the sky with its changing canvas...I doubt if writer’s block would ever find a home here! A spot of fishing, a short boat ride, a loll in a hammock or a stroll up a grassy verge would be inspirational for sure. The studio apartment is a mélange of orange and beige, the living room is a Swiss tent and the bar is an old boat, and rightly so.
Waiting, as Ambica catches up on some paperwork at her breezy ‘office desk’ (a table set under a mango tree near the chattri, close to an old baoli by the mustard fields), I peacefully let all this creative energy wash over me like a gentle rain. My trip is a bit rushed, but I could still try my hand at clay modelling. What a lovely place to learn!
Getting there: Khajuraho (120km/2hrs) and Jabalpur (160km/3hrs) are the nearest airports. The Mahakal Express from Delhi via Satna (which has better connections), stops at the Maihar railway station, just a couple of minutes away from Maihar House. Complimentary pick-ups and drop-offs, and local sightseeing, are arranged by Maihar House.
Where to stay: Usually, nine or ten rooms are available to guests at Maihar House (Rs 4,500 per person per night with meals; concessions are offered to couples and families travelling together; www.artichol.in). They come equipped with an AC, two single beds, en suite bathrooms, a seating area, and a flat screen TV with a cable connection. What’s lovely is that you might even be able to drag a bed onto the lawn and sleep under the stars. A masseuse and barber can be called on request. There are also five rooms at Art Ichol, the artist’s residency, and two rooms at Amaria, the writer’s retreat, mainly for the use of creative professionals, but art-loving visitors can book ahead to stay here (Rs 6,000 inclusive of meals).
What to see & do: Apart from enjoying the vibrantly artistic environment, guests can hike up to the Sharda Devi temple (or take the cable car instead of climbing the 1,063 steps to it), trek the Chambal hills and visit the Maihar Fort. Bandhavgarh National Park, Khajuraho and Panna National Park are not too far away and the Art Ichol team is happy to arrange the trip.
Food: Meals (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian) are simple, home-style affairs. Organic vegetables are sourced from the kitchen garden. Seasonal fruits like mangoes and jamuns are plucked straight from the bough. Art Ichol also has a nice little café where the home-style chicken and paneer rolls are delish.