Let me start with a simple question: what attracts you most when you visit a place? It’s landscape, wildlife, monuments, food, history or culture? I say what I like. I like its people. People who represent the flavor of the land, cast spell with their culture, create magic with their craft, enthrall us with their creativity and constantly weave history as they go. Last few years, I’ve spent a better part of my time covering the length and breadth of this country to make a series of films on Indian Handicrafts. The filming gave me a unique opportunity to explore the little-known communities of India and watch their inner beauty from a close quarter. So this article, unlike other travel tales on this site, is a singular paean to common people of India who make it diverse and yes, incredible.
Sight is my strongest sensory organ and it bursts with pleasure when I see a profusion of color breaking onto the horizon. In the bleak setting of the undulating dunes, the mysterious people thronging the Thar sit chilling under the blistering sun. Rajasthanis are a very colorful and creative lot! Their forts, their gardens, their lifestyle, their deities, their food, their leisure, their puppets, their paintings…every facet of their life reflects color, missing from their monochromatic backdrop. I’ve been to small towns in Rajasthan, nestled in the Aravallis like Molela (near the pilgrim spot of Nathdwara) and Bhilwara, a quaint town off the highway joining Udaipur and Jaipur. They form the seats of pottery and phad painting respectively. Documenting the art, I instantly felt connected with the land and gradually became a part of their history and culture.
Molela is a whole village made of potters and no they don’t just make pots and pans but surprisingly, do more than that. Although the glamour of clay-art now rests with the ceramic pottery serving the high-end city clientele, here still the artisans etch myths and modernity on clay tiles and tell stories – yes, the tales of valor, of love, of kingship and kinship, of village life, of planes taking off to the sky, of cellular phone taking over the village lives. The list is endless. The village has gained such a prominence for its indigenous artistic interpretation that a master-craftsman from the village is now designing a mammoth clay-installation for the Navi Mumbai airport. Phew! That must be some score.
The common history of the land also resonates in the magnificence of the phads from Bhilwara which depicts the folktales of the desert kings and their lore from the yore. The artists paint these sixty feet clothes with the lives of their native heroes and kings, complete with their birth, coronation, wedding, wars and death. The village bard, locally called the bhopa, carries this folded sacred cloth like a scroll, fixed on the camel-back to the farfetched villages. Phads have always been an integral part of the oral culture of this region. Poor villagers who are unable to reach out to their deities in temples take refuge in submitting to their sublime glory during a phad performance. The performance comprises of the bard singing and dancing regaling the stories painted on the phad canvas. I witnessed it in an obscure desert camp of hearty nomads near the town of Pushkar. With the setting sun forming the background, casting languorous shadows over the sand heaps, the flickering fire-light comes up and the performance unfolds in front of your eyes manages to just captivate your soul.
Being a city-soul I keep sacrificing a piece every day to sustain the rat race in the heavy competitive life-ways of Mumbai. To mend whatever is left and construct a new piece I blindly believe in the curing air of a small town. And my favorite soul-clinic is the city of Ajmer housing the Holy Sufi Shrine, the Dargah of Ajmer Sharif. The place itself emanates an immense sense of peace. Once inside I soak it in and sit down to in the holy calmness to observe the place and the devotees. A little street smartness is always handy in dodging the shopkeepers inside who are keen to sell you artifacts in double or triple rates than the regular. Once outside, the bustling gullies are thronged with yummy samples of local sugar-therapy. Sohan Halwa and Karachi Halwa are simply the best takeaways. For me, it’s always the savory that’s the savior and so my nose promptly guides me to the mouth-watering street-kebabs and succulent rezalas in the eateries bordering the main road, opposite the Ajmer railway station and the bus terminus. While shooting in Pushkar, every night we would drive down the hills for our dinner in any one of these joints.
Food reminds me of a charming winter afternoon I spent with a painter’s family in Bhilwara. The ladies of the household brought about a bowl of fermented lentil paste and drew dots on a wet cloth sprawled on the terrace. Afterward, when the sun had dried them, they stored them in huge glass jars for the rest of the year. They are called mangori and are an integral part of the vegetarian Rajasthani cuisine. My favorite is, of course, the Mangori Soup which I’d had in Lakshmi Misthan Bhandar in Johri Bazaar in the old part of the pink city, Jaipur. I belong to a meat-worshipping community, but this simple vegetarian delight from the deserts of Thar just won my heart and palette.
Like their food and art, people of Rajasthan are warm and extremely welcoming. On a chilly winter night of December, lying on my back on the terrace of a hundred year old haveli overlooking the lake Pichola in Udaipur, I’m transported back to my childhood where I sat by my grandfather listening to him weaving fantasy and fairytale and performing effortlessly in front of a kid whose eyes bulged out with excitement and who’s heart pounded with anticipation and wonder and mind riddled with curiosity. People of India will never let me lose touch with the inner me!