TRIBAL TENDENCIES | Devrai Art Village, Panchgani
Dipping my feet into Le Meridien’s ‘Unlocked’ series of journeys, I find myself in the town of Panchgani for an ‘Art Unlocked’ engagement. Neighbourly Mahabaleshwar – despite its small pockets of prettiness, those fabled strawberry orchards, the lingering essence of its five sacred rivers, and pervasive hill-station mist – simply pales in beauty to its cousin. At Panchgani, old colonial cottages with red-bricked roofs, private bungalows and villas bearing a rare architectural aesthetic, an interesting ethnic convergence including, perplexingly, a large Ba’hai influence, and a sea of green everywhere the eye wanders make for heady mist-soaked memories.
The Devrai Art Village, my chosen destination, compels me instantly. A non-profit initiative created by Mandakini Mathur, Devrai is passionate about sustaining tribal art, craft, and livelihood. At their boutique, art and utility pieces suffused with tribal individuality fill the spaces; modern-day design sensibility shaking hands with decidedly tribal techniques and processes. The end results are stunning.
“The aim here is to create beautiful artefacts truly Indian in spirit but universal in appeal,” Mandakini tells me as she shows me around the studio. The pieces are highly priced, but according to Mandakini, justifiably so. “When you examine the technique that goes into crafting them, when you consider that it’s the primary source of livelihood for a large number of craftsmen, and when you reflect on the fact that Devrai has a purpose – to support and boost tribal art – then the prices seem right,” she reasons.
The techniques she speaks about aren’t run-of-the-mill. The Devrai Rock Dhokra is a patented process wherein brass and stone are fused together at precise temperatures to create animals and shapes of uncommon beauty. With Fused Metal Craft, the Devrai craftsmen typically add brass patterns and embellishments onto basis structures of sculpted iron. Then there is Organic Casting, wherein direct casting of organic objects such as branches and barks results in standalone pieces impossible to replicate by hand. I’m particularly drawn to the Molten Metal Murals, whose abstract forms are brought to life by pouring molten brass and then combining it with handcrafted shapes, which together are composed onto painted framed canvasses.
A steep walk down from the studio, I come face to face with some of the men and women behind these marvels. Most of Devrai’s artisans hail from Chattisgarh, and in these work-sheds and makeshift homes, they work, ideate, create, and stay, sometimes for up to three months at a stretch. The short 25-minute drive from Panchgani back to Mahabaleshwar is a simple reminder of the joys of living among the hills – fresh air accentuated by sudden gusts of breeze, tiny bakeries and nondescript cafés, kids walking along on their way to school, and a way of life lost upon the larger cities.
This is a small extract from a larger Cover Story that appeared in Travel + Leisure (September, 2016).