A couple of years back I had read Juhi Sinha’s biography of Bismillah Khan and I just loved it. In that review, I had written that I would love to read her travel writing, as her portrayal of Banaras and its character in the biography was so vivid and enchanting that I almost felt like getting up and buying a ticket to Banaras. So when I came across this book Beyond the Dunes on Journeys in Rajasthan, I wanted to read it as soon as possible. And I am happy I read it. I am already looking forward to more of her writing.
The author is a filmmaker. Someone who has made many documentaries for Doordarshan. Especially covering the various cultural aspects of Rajasthan. It is during these journeys and some of her personal journeys that she discovered Rajasthan. Its heritage hotels and the economy around it. Its singers and their plight. The women in bright colors, its landscape of desert and forts, its history and its legends. Apart from one trip to Sikkim, she remains in Rajasthan most of the times throughout the book.
As a very personal account, she narrates her journey of making a film on heritage hotels in Rajasthan that was not such a rage when she made the film. Probably it was an industry in its nascent stages when the old palaces and Havelis were being restored for the potential tourists. Primarily for the foreign tourists coming to India in search of exotic experiences. She paints the beautiful interiors, hanging jharokhas and balconies with fresh air. But also tells that the places are not always very comfortable to live with things like narrow steep staircases and low seating. She talks of guides. And how they tell you stories to entice you and that may not always be true. Or at the very least may be exaggerated.
Sometimes she jumps into the history pages from the guidebooks or from her knowledge. And at other times she is very much in the present dealing with the issues at hand purely as a filmmaker. She narrates various incidents where roping in help from the IAS husband helped her sail. I particularly enjoyed the narration of doing the film on Jhalawar that Vasundhara Raje Scindia commissioned her to make. And how the whole Government machinery bent backward to provide her all the help and catered to the whims of her whole team. Well-narrated anecdotes make the place and the scenes come alive.
She takes her lens to small villages where singers actually live. And tells you how the filmmakers add glamour to them when filming them. She talks about paintings that are not as great when you look at them closely. And the ones that are good but are struggling to survive. She gives you the anthropological history of the artisans of Rajasthan without getting technical at all. Though she goes back and forth in time, mish-mashing multiple trips of hers into a narration, you go through the experience with her. Sometimes she looks at the places purely as a filmmaker, only through her camera lenses. But sometimes she gets lost in the surroundings like travelers do.
I loved traveling with Juhi Sinha in some known and some unknown parts of Rajasthan. A lot of new places have got added to my to be visited list.
Read Beyond the Dunes for some good travel writing.