Some states have the glamour and others have the gyaan. But often, like it is with people, the ones with depth and dignity are often overlooked in this OTT world. Which has often been the case with Madhya Pradesh.
Despite some fantastic ad films created by Ogilvy India for the state tourism department (including the Memories of Destination TVC that was dubbed the ‘World’s most honest film’), MP’s still ranks only the eighth highest in terms of tourist arrivals.
But that might be about to change. According to Sonia Meena, the dynamic Additional MD of the Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation, there are now almost 8.5 crore tourists visiting the state, and the numbers are increasing.
The government has not only invested heavily in the tourism sector and the 11 tiger sanctuaries, but also simplified procedures for shoots (remember Sui Dhaga, Stree, Kalank, Panga and Son Chiriya?) and involved locals in tourism in a big way.
Suddenly, the breeze is blowing towards scenic Bhopal and the pulse is pounding for picturesque Pachmarhi. From Khajuraho’s erotic 10th century sculptures to the ornate temples of Ujjain; Kanha’s diversity of wildlife to the rambling ruins of majestic Mandu, the awe-inspiring Dhuandhar falls and marble rocks of Jabalpur and the pre-historic paintings in the rock shelters at Bhimbetka; Bhutte ka Kees and Daal Bafla in Indore’s Sarafa Bazaar to the handloom sarees of Chanderi and Maheshwar; lavish carpets of Gwalior to diamonds in Panna and vibrant Gond art in the tribal areas; there’s so much to explore in MP.
Food from the heartland
I recently had the fortune to sample a sumptuous meal created by Chef Anuradha Joshi Medhora, whose venture is aptly called Charoli after the almond-flavoured seeds that are commonly used in the cuisine of Central India.
Restaurateur and serial entrepreneur Riyaaz Amlani, who knows the Indian food scene better than the back of his hand and can predict the direction in which the notoriously fickle consumer veers, has given Anuradha a platform in his Cameo Kitchen at his Flea Bazaar Café in Kamala Mills so Mumbai diners can try the mouth-wateringly complex food of the Malwa plateau. I appreciated the chance to taste dishes that you wouldn’t really find in restaurants or on the streets in MP.
This feast that was culled from recipes originating in the royal kitchens, had preparations that bore influences of the Marathas, the Rajputs and the Begums of Bhopal. The cuisine has everything from zingy green chilli thecha to delicate kebabs to robust Mughlai gravies.
My favourites from the elaborate thaali created by Anuradha, whose roots lie in Indore, were the chukandar ke shikampuri (succulent beetroot kebabs), the unusual Murghe ki Kadhi (why didn’t anyone else think of this?!) that melded yogurt and poultry in a deliciously creamy concoction, the Maans Khusk (a hearty meat curry with cubed and fried potato added as a garnish) and the Green Gram Halwa.
I was also blown away by the idea of a dessert made with red meat – the Maans Halwa – which was apparently once served as breakfast to fussy young princes to help build their strength, the sweet taste to entice them into eating their daily protein!
It starts off on the palate tasting like any other vegetarian halwa, but ends on a proteiny meaty note, giving it that added oomph for non-vegetarians. This and all the other dishes, both veg and non-veg, are truly worth trying.
A hidden gem
Perhaps there will be some traces of a similar regal tradition in Orchha, a town of temples and palaces that dreams of days past on the banks of the beautiful Betwa river. Once the capital of the Bundela rulers, it’s now going to play host to a Namaste Orchha festival on March 6-8 this year. Festival curator and designer Yasmin Kidwai tells me to expect an eclectic mix of experiences – photography walks, cycling tours, yoga and meditation sessions, river rafting, Bundelkhandi farm-to-fork food, a serenely spiritual aarti experience on the ghats along the river with actress Swara Bhaskar and soulful music from powerhouse performers such as Shubha Mudgal and Swanand Kirkire around the big baobab tree in what has now been dubbed The Ganj.
Rather different from my last visit to this region many years ago, where I did a road trip around the forests of the Madhav National Park in Shivpuri, stopping at Jhansi and then on to the forts of Gwalior.
A memorable journey where a reformed dacoit became my new best friend; when the cops of Morena offered me a chance to chase these thugs in the Chambal ravines at night; and when I took a small detour to Orchha, which literally means ‘hidden’, and discovered how little I knew about this part of my vast country.