On the highway connecting Khajuraho and Bandhavgarh, tucked within an endless expanse of mustard and sugarcane fields, stands a lone, crumbling cenotaph (chhatri). Nobody knows exactly how old it is; estimates range from 400-600 years. Across from the chhatri lies an ancient stepwell (baoli). When Ambica Beri saw these relics near Ichol village in Madhya Pradesh, it felt like home to her. The artist and owner of Gallery Sanskriti in Kolkata wanted to establish a creative commune for artists—a place where the landscape would inspire them to create their best work. “I wanted to bring art to the community, not have it tucked away in a gallery,” she says. And so the idea of Art Ichol was born.
Set in four acres of green around the chhatri, Art Ichol has a stunning collection of stone, metal, ceramic, and fine arts, housed in the most unexpected location. It is open to everyone. Artists from India, and across the world come here for residencies and workshops. They stay in lovely, airy rooms in the self-contained housing block, or in Ambica’s home in Maihar. Ambica encourages up-and-coming artists from economically weaker backgrounds to use Art Ichol’s many facilities to hone their skills in bronze casting, stone and wood carving, ceramics, and clay.
Some time ago, I’d heard of this wonderful escape for creative sorts, just four hours from Jabalpur. So on a trip to the region, I drove to Maihar, the town eight kilometres from Ichol, where Ambica lives. At first glance, Maihar is a dusty little industrial town in Central India. Stone crushing plants and the gigantic chimneys of limestone kilns define the cityscape.
The tumult of the town magically disappears as I turn into the sunshine-yellow gate of Ambica’s home—Maihar Heritage Home. At the entrance stands artist Narayan Sinha’s installation, Deviji, a figurine made with scrap metal, pots and pans. Pink bougainvillea creeps around the sculpture. The medley of nature and art is a recurrent theme in Maihar Heritage Home and at Art Ichol.
Maihar Heritage Home is a 100-year-old heritage home built around a tangerine-and-blue tiled courtyard. Creepers, alive with birdsong, tumble across the mustard-coloured arches of the wraparound porch. Amidst the black-and-white photographs and ceramic plates, Ravindra Rao’s haunting short verses of Hindi poetry are scribbled liberally on the walls. Lotus ponds and tiny sculptures dot the garden, which leads into the ceramic and pottery workshop. Guests are free to observe artists here and even give it a go.
Ambica has opened her home not only to artists, but also to regular guests like me, who find themselves lucky to spend time in a beautiful, creative environment like this. I retire to my large, garden-facing bedroom, with a high ceiling, four-poster bed, and reclining wood and jute chairs, reminiscent of those in an old family mansion.
Over a hearty lunch of mustard fish curry and pumpkin sabzi, I chat with the other residents—an artist on an exchange program from Australia, and an intern from Mumbai. The conversation is most intriguing, centred around how the lovely ceramic plates we eat off were crafted. All the crockery and decor at Maihar Heritage Home are created within the space. On an unconventional getaway like this, creativity seems to hang in the air, inspiring visitors to seek beauty in mundane, everyday objects.
We head off to Art Ichol after lunch. Ambica points to the street-facing installation of “three gossipy men”, made with metal sheets and wrought-iron scraps. Massive stone and metal sculptures dot the outdoor space. Prominent among them is a sculpture of legendary sarod player, Baba Allauddin Khan, who hailed from Maihar.
Ambica’s vision was to create a space in keeping with the surroundings, using locally sourced materials and drawing from the local culture. The surrounding towns of Maihar and Rewa are industrial mining centres, but these elements have been seamlessly fused into the fabric of Art Ichol.
Ambica leads me into the lovely, glass-enclosed Khaprael Kothi. The sloping red roof is made with slim, baked-earth bricks called khaprael, used in local village architecture.
The indoor space is a home for rescued industrial scrap like metal grates, pipes, old switchboards, and other things that wouldn’t normally be cast a second glance. As I look around in amazement at the stunning furniture, light installations, and tiny pieces that fill the space, Ambica reels off the fascinating story behind each creation. The star piece is a massive chandelier that hangs from the roof. “Narayan Sinha took an unused chimney from a limestone kiln, inverted it, and fitted it with 1200 bulbs,” she says. The chimney is exactly like the ones I’d seen in Maihar a few hours earlier.
A Burma teakwood door from an old Kolkata mansion has been fashioned into a table; a disused church bench forms a seating space; discarded railway signal lights hang from the ceiling in an innovative light fixture; shipyard scrap from Kochi are used in a table and as hanging lights.
Ambica travelled the length and breadth of the country, scavenging scrap from rail yards, shipyards, crumbling homes, and various other places. She saw beauty in what most of us regard as junk. Along with other artists, Ambica has transformed these objects into unfathomably beautiful things. I spend hours in the indoor and outdoor spaces, admiring the fascinating creations, including local artist’s Uday Singh’s ceramic cows and Thai artist Naidee Changmoh’s adorable stone figurines.
Community building and skill development are important aspects of Art Ichol. Local staff from Ichol and Maihar ably guide visitors through the exhibits. I walk into a room filled with swatches of colourful fabric. Seher and Shubra, two ladies who work with Ambica, oversee a group of young local girls who work with discarded cement bags, embroidering delicate patterns on them. The hope is that the fabric can be fashioned into chic bags and sold, earning the girls an income. The unique embroidered patterns feature a distinctly shaped plant, a deer, and a bird, that the girls simply refer to as “Ichol bird”. When I ask about the motifs, I learn that they are inspired by the mud relief patterns on the homes in Ichol village. A pair of visiting artists from Australia had documented these patterns while working on an Art Ichol project in 2015.
Intrigued, I seek out these images. In Ichol village, curious children and friendly residents invite my colleague and me in for tea, and show us their homes, but only a handful feature these relief patterns on the whitewashed walls. The peacock, deer, flowers, and the Ichol bird are only found around the entrances of homes that are over 40 years old.
Most of the homes here are newer constructions, built after heavy rains and the swollen Tamas River destroyed much of the village in 2015. The locals seem most amused at my interest in these motifs, and are almost dismissive of them.
With time, the local tradition of mud relief art has faded. As the images gradually disappear from the village homes, it is heartening to know that this local art is still preserved for posterity in Art Ichol’s creations.
Getting there: Art Ichol lies between Khajuraho (130 km/4 hrs northwest) and Bandhavgarh (100 km/3 hrs south), eight kilometres from the town of Maihar. After Khajuraho, Jabalpur (160 km/4 hrs) is the next closest airport.
Address: Khajuraho-Bandhavgarh Highway, Ichol Village, Near Maihar, Madhya Pradesh
Hours: 9 a.m – 8 p.m
Entry: 50 per person
Maihar Heritage Home
Address: NH7, Rewa Road, Maihar 485 771. Dist: Satna. Madhya Pradesh
Tel: +91 98310 09278
Tariff: Room ₹6,500 per person per night, includes all three meals; taxes extra.
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