The Royal Colours Of Kanker

Tourism is both rescued by, and comes to the rescue of the erstwhile royalty in Chhattisgarh
One of the bedrooms of the Chhuikhadan Palace, Chattisgarh
One of the bedrooms of the Chhuikhadan Palace, ChattisgarhSafed Haathi

The word "palace" has surely launched a thousand airships. The word is also capacious in its reference, as I found during a recent visit to two erstwhile palaces in Chhattisgarh. Yes, Chhattisgarh has palaces. Like most of India has had its kings. The kings rule no more, but their homes are still called palaces, whatever their age, size, shape, style and condition. And once you put the P word on the board it is like pressing a button the globetrotting tourist has already begun to fantasise about living life king (or queen) size at the exotic edge of a jungle before even stepping off the plane.

There are no boards at Kanker and Chhuikhadan, though. In fact, I have to call Jai of Kanker Palace from the gate before I feel sure it is not the B.P. Deo High School we will reach but, in fact, that late Raja's home. As we enter the gate I wonder if this is a palace.

Entry gate to Kanker Palace
Entry gate to Kanker PalaceWikimedia Commons

There is a context to the concern. I have been hoping this trip would deliver me from an old affliction. I find I simply cannot vacation - there is just too much to see any place you go and too little time. I often come back from travel tired and in need of another holiday - the kind featuring books on afternoon verandas. So when a voice off the air offered a trip to the Chhuikhadan Palace, which I could not even find on Google maps, I thought here at last, there could be nothing to see except paintings on the walls of the room. I shall finally get cosy with a book without thought of the many thousands that are being spent for this homey pleasure. Liberation. Luxury.

In Chhuikhadan

I was wrong. Chhuikhadan is very much on Google maps, though like me you might type the spelling wrong in the first search. And lazy afternoons The first afternoon at Kanker found me racing against the sun to see the prehistoric rock paintings nearby and be back in time before the soft evening light, in which the photographer absolutely had to shoot the 1937 built palace, faded. The second afternoon was spent immersed in the changing glow of the brilliantly painted walls of four rooms in the palace at Chhuikhadan three hours away. The third afternoon, there wasn't one, unless you count the five hours on a comfortable drive to Nagpur on NH6 dozing off after another hectic holiday.

Many charms of rural India

The simple pleasure of getting to know a new place helps distract me. The landscape I see on the three-hour drive from Raipur airport is pleasantly flat and peppered with trees on green-and-brown land. At some point, I begin noticing the simple elegance of the lime-washed mud architecture of farming communities. It is not the individual houses alone that are elegant. Entire hamlets gather together with the easy grace of informal family huddles.

The young scions of Chhuikhadan
The young scions of ChhuikhadanSafed Haathi

Kawardha and Kanker have pioneered palace-based tourism in the region. Kawardha opened in 1991, and Kanker in 1997. Chhuikhadan, inspired by Kanker, is going through an extended soft launch during the final phase of repair and refurbishment work. Its "yuvraj", Giriraj Das, is happy to admit that Kanker Palace is his inspiration and Jai (who turns out to be Ashwini Pratap Deo, a younger scion of Kanker), an active guide in Chhuikhadan's effort to enter the circuit. Jai on his part sees a network of palaces as being crucial to the growth of high-value, low-volume international tourism in the state. He has been urging Giriraj, well into a political career as Nagar Panchayat president, into this market. Kanker already has five palace rooms and an additional four in two cottages on the grounds. Chhuikhadan has two rooms ready, but these are not the ones with the energetic paintings on the walls that have led me to Chhattisgarh. The three painted rooms are in the final stages of furnishing, while the fourth lies untouched.

Kanker Palace

The facade of Kanker Palace
The facade of Kanker

Kanker Palace, our first stop, is petite as palaces go. It was built in its present form as a colonial bungalow for the British Agent in 1937. At one point, the British asked Raja Bhanu Pratap Deo to choose between this bungalow and a more palace-like 100-room mansion as his official residence.

The sensible king chose the bungalow (leaving only his name to the college that now occupies the other mansion), and it has been called the Kanker Palace ever since. As at Chhuikhadan, after the abolition of the privy purse, members of the erstwhile ruling family moved to Raipur and the younger generation was educated there and in New Delhi. It was only after heritage became a viable anchor for international luxury tourism in India that the youngsters in the family returned to restore the palace and put it to productive use. The palaces target the international tourist. But surprisingly, there is also some domestic tourism dominated, Jai says, by Parsis from Mumbai.

Kanker Palace is a neat, symmetrical building
Kanker Palace is a neat, symmetrical building

Kanker Palace is a neat, symmetrical building with two small projecting rooms in either corner, one of which is a guest room and the other the office. A pleasant west-facing veranda spans the width of the façade, deepening into cosy lounges at either end. Behind the central portion of the veranda is the sitting room with a high roof and high level windows that spotlight the inner hunting trophy-lined wall with a dramatic afternoon light. To the left a door leads to the family quarters, with guests occupying the right wing. The sitting room itself is straight out of archival photographs, complete with a dusty tiger that invites Parth to shoot himself against its stripes. Facebook makes people do all sorts of things.

The high-paying tourist comes to Kanker for the stories and the service. The latter is so personal, it is admirably professional since erstwhile royals perform it. The cook was away the day we arrived, because of an emergency in his family. So the tasty dinner we had (after the mandatory but enthusiastic tribal dance for a visiting European group), was cooked by Jolly, Jai's elder brother, and once a career chef. In more formal times he would have only been known as Surya Pratap Deo. Earlier in the afternoon, in an irony natural to our era, Jai himself garlanded one or two of the European guests who arrived in the afternoon en route to scheduled tribal encounters over the next two weeks. Kingship was once partly about occupying a ritual place in the hierarchy of tribute leading up to the emperor. That hierarchy has now been shaken up a bit while the ritual of tribute remains. Only now, it is the customer who is king.

It is for this new royalty that Chhuikhadan's hitherto unknown visual treasures are being opened up (though it will be a while till you have systems of service in place). A three-hour drive through another part of the region takes us there from Kanker.

The Paintings 

The royal home at Chhuikhadan (literally, "lime quarry"), enclosing the better part of seven acres, is more like a typical palace than Kanker. It is a concentric arrangement of enclosing walls and buildings of varying age, with the Kesar Mahal (1918) at its centre. Beguiling photographs of the painted rooms in this building (taken by a European friend of the Kanker family) have brought me to this region. I spend the afternoon walking around the painted rooms in the company of Giriraj, his younger brother and a visiting uncle. We talk about many things, including the need for professional advice in the restoration of paintings which would help avoid the innocent vandalism of varnish applied to protect the paintings in the three rooms.

Conjecture about the stories on the walls, as well as discussions with Parth about the camera angles and furniture arrangement, continue throughout. By evening, I realise I have actually not spent a lot of time alone with the paintings. That might be a problem, I realise. But next morning as I start making my notes, I realise that through all the distraction of many conversations and cups of tea, the painted light of the afternoon before had got right under the skin of my mind.

One of the bedrooms of the Chhuikhadan Palace, Chattisgarh
One of the bedrooms of the Chhuikhadan Palace, ChattisgarhSafed Haathi

The painted rooms of Chhuikhadan set off strange and wonderful resonances. They are simultaneously of different worlds, revealing the world-view of the Raja who commissioned them, but perhaps also of the modern Indian of later years. Borne of the dusty rurality that the palace presided over, they are both innocent and audacious, traditional and modern but, most of all, miniatures gone monumental.

Giriraj Das's great-grandfather, Raja Bhudar Kishore Das, commissioned the paintings. Giriraj explains that the themes are either religious or about European lifestyle. Strange combination, one might think. But it makes sense if you have the story. Great-grandfather was himself extremely devout and used to offer a doha every day to the Lord with his prayers. He also had a European mistress. The twin commitments found themselves onto the walls of his rooms. Today they work rather well as mirrors of our own modernity.

One of the painted bedrooms at Chhukhadan Palace
One of the painted bedrooms at Chhukhadan PalaceSafed Haathi

These are not portable paintings made for a broad public. These are painted enclosures for the intimate life of a single patron. What an experience it must have been to sit, stand or even laze in these rooms Contemplating a painting on a white wall is such tame stuff try being wrapped in a pulsing field of images - the ordinary, royal, religious and the simply foreign, all thrown together. Scanning the mystifying and brilliant montage alone in the near darkness that makes the paint glow you might be forgiven for thinking you are inside a mind.

The paintings address a strange viewer. That viewer, conceived a century ago, is also strangely someone very like you and me. He or she encounters strange hybridities with only a momentary twinge before adjusting to it as a different normalcy. There are enough occasions to be startled. Is that only a Raja in riding gear with bow and arrow approaching his lady love-to-be nicely rounded out in nine-yard finery Or Dushyant and Shakuntala Is that cityscape from Rajasthan or France And is that an angry Vishwamitra battling the turbulence in the pond caused by water rushing under an arched bridge obviously built by the colonial PWD. The painters (for there are obviously many involved) are at ease with the ceaseless juxtapositions of unlike realities within the paintings. For them, a shared if changeful colour field was obviously enough rhetorical ritual to hold these diverse forces together.

Need For Preservation

Almost a century has passed since those walls were painted. A century during which we forgot, relearnt and perhaps reinvented the protocols of viewing art like this. Inevitably, as at similar moments in Shekhawati's havelis, I thank the late painter Bhupen Khakhar for giving us back old ways of seeing the literally fabulous imagery of popular visual traditions, but with a necessary spin. Remember at the end of the twentieth century, Khakhar also painted for a changed, but strangely familiar, viewer.

The Information

Getting There

Kanker is 140km south of Raipur on the very good NH-43. Raipur is accessible by train and air with regular connections to Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Bhubaneswar and Indore.

Chhuikhadan is approximately 120km northwest of Raipur on a good state road connecting Kawardha and Rajnandgaon. It is about 170km from Kanker.

The Palaces

The Palace Kanker has five rooms to rent in the palace and four in two cottages, built a short walk away on the property. The property is neatly maintained, though a lick of polish on the furniture would do wonders for the ambience. The fact that the family lives in one part of the palace lends the place the intimacy of a homestay, albeit with royalty. The food and service are very good. The palace works best if you are after a slightly different and restful experience while reaching out to the fringes of the tribal heartland of Bastar.

With prior notice the palace can organise trips into tribal villages, the nearest one being approximately 40km away. Of course, there are the less glamorous but rewarding possibilities nearby as always. We did two. A 5am trek up the supposedly 900 steps of the Qila Dongri rewarded us with peaceful morning light over a perennial pond beside a temple on the hill. The earlier afternoon, we visited a rock formation 15km away, on a little hill with a panoramic view of a small valley. Prehistoric paintings are still visible on some rock surfaces, though occasionally covered with the usual Munnu-Gunnu graffiti.

More details here.

The Palace Chhuikhadan is still not officially open for guests, though there are two rooms where it is possible to stay comfortably. However, there is no professional operational system in place yet so go ready to ask for small things (like a night table, or a towel) and they will be happily provided. The food we ate at the formal dining table with the men in the family was very good local cuisine. 

Though the palace and its paintings are the main attraction, the village rewards exploration. The farming community a little north of the palace has elegant mud architecture, often with white and coloured limewash inside and out. The palace can organise bonfire dinners at a nearby dam and can take you to visit local weavers (who supply their wares to Fabindia) and potters.

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