With the most affable royal families, a large tribal population (that seems to break all stereotypes), fantastic craft and even an alien or two thrown in for good measure, Chhattisgarh’s a secret we’re not sure we want to share
Words: ANJUMAN DEODHAR
Photograph: VINOBHA NATHAN
Is this where the university is?” I ask incredulously, as we roll down a dusty village road flanked by a few ramshackle houses. We’re just 100km out of Raipur – we’ve skipped the city completely, and the last two hours have been a glorious drive past acres of paddy fields bathed in golden morning light. “Yeh-suh,” Awesh, the local expert accompanying us for the trip, replies, and promptly starts rattling off the history of the place.
The story goes that Raja Virendra Bahadur Singh and Rani Padmavati Devi, rulers of the princely state of Khairagarh, had a daughter named Indira. Upon her untimely death in the 1940s (of rabies, it’s said), they decided to convert their palace into a music academy, which then became the Indira Kala Sangit Vishwavidyalay a few years later. Chhattisgarh’s oldest university shows its age, though. The palace is crumbling and although the archaeology museum is housed in a newer structure, it’s in no better state. At first, I couldn’t understand the apathy that could have led to this state of affairs: 9th- and 10th-century sculptures propped up against damp walls stained with mildew, balancing on caved-in floors.
But then, this is my first time in Chhattisgarh. I didn’t know that this wildly beautiful state isn’t about external appearances. You need to scratch beneath the surface, delve a little deeper, peer a little harder, to find her myriad treasures. “Incredulous” has become a constant state of mind. Before I can wrap my head around the fact that I’m in Dandakaranya, the land of Lord Ram’s exile, I’m driving into a palace that was the stage for a grisly royal murder. While Awesh is narrating the Shakespeare-esque tragedy of Jhitku-Mitki, I find myself reminiscing about the extremely attractive tribal woman who’d got me that special batch of mahua. I’ve chatted with a charlatan posing as a holy man, and had a tribal blacksmith patiently explain to me why his flight ticket to Hong Kong was so much cooler than the one to New York JFK. We’d even made the drive to Gotitola and Chandeli. The hills around these villages have pre-historic cave paintings in which, if you’ve got the right sort of imagination, you’ll probably see aliens and their spacecrafts.
Ten days later, when it was time to leave, I couldn’t decide whether I was sad that I had to go, or angry that I hadn’t come here before.