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More than just a temple town

Until a decade ago, Purulia and Paschim Medinipur in West Bengal were part of India’s Red Corridor. The chau dancers of Purulia were into beedi making and earned a paltry ₹19 for two days of labour. Similarly, the scroll painters of Pingla village lived a hand-to-mouth existence. And then, one man’s efforts changed the face of these places. “We identified the experienced craftsmen, made them teach the local art form to others in the community, developed their skills and linked them to the market directly. In a few years, curious art lovers visited these villages and a tourism boom came about as a by-product,” says Amitava Bhattacharya, Founder Director of Banglanatak dot com, an organisation that has been working to preserve intangible heritage for the past two decades. “We have created 20 such art and craft villages as heritage tourism destinations across West Bengal,” says Amitava, who was in Madurai on the invite of PACE Foundation of Fortune Pandiyan Hotel.

In collaboration with Travel Club and other stakeholders of the hospitality and tourism sector in the city, Amitava may soon curate a village festival for Madurai, which will be a calender event showcasing the rich art and culture of the town apart from attracting the international artiste fraternity. “Madurai has a colourful and eclectic mixture of art, craft and culture; but somehow, tourism here is restricted only to the temple. There’s much more to explore and showcase,” says G Vasudevan, director of Fortune Pandiyan, who has been taking various efforts to make Madurai more than just a one-day destination. “Right now, a lot of international and domestic tourists are stay only a day in the town. With culturally rich regions like Chettinad, hills stations like Kodaikanal and even beaches like Rameshwaram in close proximity, Madurai has much more potential.”

Amitava, who’s currently working with the Rajasthan Government to improve tourism in Barmer belt, says developing local art forms not just augments the income of the artisans but also uplifts the place as a whole. “Apart from visiting forts and temples, tourists want to learn something new. Instead of just buying a Sungudi sari, they may actually be interested in learning how the sari is made,” he says. “Even in the most popular destinations, there are unexplored pockets of art that has to be identified and promoted. For instance, in Goa which overflows with tourists, we discovered four villages just 10 kilometres from the famous Arambol beach, where the mahar community is engaged in bamboo craft. But no tourist visits them and they are subjected to untouchability till date.”

Since beach tourism has taken centre-stage in Goa, the precious bamboo craft and the making of mats from lova, a local grass, has emained in oblivion, according to Amitava. “When we took it up as a project in 2014, there was a lone woman who was weaving the mats and now there are 18 small groups of skilled artisans. Now, those artisans are on their own, thus art and craft can be made into a micro enterprise and an entrepreneurial business model. As tourists visit them, they eat and drink there, elevating the social and economic status of the locals as well.” Madurai, he feels, is typecast as a town that brings in only temple tourism. “After visiting a number of temples in Kumbakonam and Thajavur, the tourist is quite jaded by the time they reach Madurai to visit yet another temple. If their stay has to be extended by a day, they have to be engaged in some activity and local art can take that space.”

“I visited Vilachery, a village of doll-makers on the outskirts of Madurai. Though their craft is intricate, there are issues with their clay, which is 40 percent sand. In that case, they can’t compete in the international market. So the first objective would be to refine their raw material and skills simultaneously which will make them fit for a global audience,” says Amitava. “As a precursor, we will plan a village festival and have an expo of all the art forms in and around the city. That’ll also give an impetus to the artisans.”

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