A River Runs Through It

Tanushree Ghosh
Betwa river, Manu Chao, Madhya Pradesh tourism policy, Orchha festival, indian express news

A view of Orchha’s monuments from the Betwa river.

Just days before ‘Hindustan ka dil’ skipped a beat with a political jolt last week, Madhya Pradesh set in motion a new tourism policy. A three-day festival celebrated Orchha, a town along the Betwa river, hidden by forests, founded in 1531 by the Bundela kings, who built the chhatris that dot its landscape.

Orchha’s Jehangir Mahal’s walls came alive to actor Manoj Bajpayee’s voice and projection mapping the legend of Lord Ram’s leaving Ayodhya to accompany the Bundela queen to Orchha on three conditions, including that he be made its king. This, in fact, is the only place in India where he is worshipped as a king. He is also the new favourite to help boost tourism.

“It behoves us to speak of Ram’s qualities of governance as a ruler, marked by benevolence towards his subjects. Our politicians should imbibe that, not just use his name,” said actor Swara Bhasker, who was emcee for a section of ‘Namaste Orchha: Discover to Rediscover’ festival, that saw Hindustani classical vocalist Shubha Mudgal dedicate her guru Pandit Ramashreya Jha’s bandish Jab hari dhanush dhare to Lord Ram.

Betwa river, Manu Chao, Madhya Pradesh tourism policy, Orchha festival, indian express news

Manu Chao in performance at the festival.

The town has been repainted, its roads levelled, under three months. Designer Anupamaa Dayal with local artists made frescoes and Gond bird motifs on the walls of locals’ houses, which have been turned into homestays — modelled on Kerala homestays — with cattle, charpoys and mud stoves for the rustic experience. The state has signed an MoU with Kerala, till 2022, in implementing Kerala’s Responsible Tourism model. Other experiences include mountain cycling, river rafting, helicopter rides, photography and heritage walks.

“The town’s proximity to the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) is a huge plus,” said Faiz Ahmed Kidwai, managing director of Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board, which is co-hosting the event. The Best Heritage City (National Tourism Awards, 2017-18) is already popular with foreigners. “Not only 1/3rd tourists of Orchha are foreigners but 1/3rd of Madhya Pradesh’s tourists come to Orchha, which has 84 heritage properties,” said state Chief Secretary Sudhi Ranjan Mohanty, quoting festival director Yasmin Kidwai — a documentary filmmaker and Municipal Councillor of Delhi’s Daryaganj constituency — who spoke of the town’s syncretism: a mandir and masjid in the same building, and a confluence of Rajput and Mughal architecture in the fort and chhatris.

Roadside hoardings announced the in-absentia chief minister’s waiver of Rs 7,154 crore farmer loans. Farmers weren’t present, either, to show gratitude. But the “farm to fork” food curation, by writer-columnist Anoothi Vishal, featuring tasteful takes on local Bundelkhandi dishes like mangore, was there for sampling. “We have a fascist approach to our own ingredients, say, parwal, tinda, tori, the reaction changes when I say avocado or lamb chops,” said Chef Vikramjit Roy, who dished up Kadaknath Chicken in an Asian-flavoured green curry, as Vishal served guacamole made with the humble parwal.

The state hopes to offer 100 such places for sustainable tourism and marriage destination, in three years, with local-community participation. “It won’t just be survival of the fittest but the revival of the weakest,” said Mohanty, inviting industries to set up shop, like incubation centres for Bollywood, such as the technical help centre director Prakash Jha had set up in Bhopal some years ago. Not too long back, Peepli Live (2010) had cast many Adivasis from Bhopal’s Badwai region as actors. “About 80 per cent of Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2005) has been shot in Orchha,” said singer, Indore boy, and festival emcee Swanand Kirkire, who did a jugalbandi with the band Indian Ocean under a beautifully-lit baobab tree.

For the first time, artistes from Madhya Pradesh have collaborated with internationally-acclaimed artistes: sitarist Smita Nagdev with fusion band Mrigya; bhakti folk singer Kaluram Bamaniya with Indian Ocean; santoor-player Shruti Adhikari, Kabir-folk singer Prahlad Tipaniya, singer Shilpa Rao, with composer Clinton Cerejo, who, perhaps, mistook the setting to be Coke Studio, for his solo acts with his band struck few chords with the audience. Tipaniya could barely finish one song when rain washed out the evening. The showstopper act, Franco-Spanish musician Manu (short for Manuel) Chao though, pulled forth the crowd with his lively and high-spirited Clandestino and La Vida Tombola (from the documentary Maradona by Kusturica).

The writer was a guest of the Namaste Orchha festival