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August 02, 2019

The Andhra Art & Craft Hotel Nurtures Lesser-Known Traditional Art Forms

Text by Ranjabati Das

The handicrafts hotel in Visakhapatnam provides a ringside view of four traditional art and crafts forms from the state that rarely have pride of place on a glocal stage. Interior designer Ameet Mirpuri and local crafts consultant Krupanand Karthik take Verve behind the scenes

The world’s first luxury handicrafts hotel in Visakhapatnam (Vizag), since opening in November last year, has emerged as an immersive experiential hub that is putting the lesser-known crafts of Andhra Pradesh on the map. A labour of love by city-based designer Ameet Mirpuri and local handicrafts designer Krupanand Karthik, it was realised in close collaboration with artisans, artists and art university graduates native to the state.

Crafts traditions that take centre stage here are Tholu Bommalata or leather shadow puppetry, Budithi brass work, kalamkari or pen art, and the Etikoppaka art of toy-making. Details and elements have been seamlessly infused into every nook and corner of this 15,000-square-foot heritage wing of the Palm Beach hotel, and the principal aim of the mise en scène, so to speak, is to instil a sense of pride for this ancient cultural heritage in a diverse audience. Discreetly opulent yet quirky, the old-world charm melts into the modern at The Andhra Art & Craft Hotel.

Ameet Mirpuri, 39
Founder of Design Studio

You have worked with contemporary hotel groups like Novotel and Radisson in the past. Why did you take on this project?
Over the years, I’ve been involved in the renovation and revamping of the Palm Beach hotel in Vizag, of which the handicrafts hotel is an extension. We started with a few rooms, lightly based on this concept of handicrafts, five years ago, and that was when we first began our research. We brought on board a crafts designer, Krupanand Karthik, and it evolved into the idea of creating a whole new wing about 15 months ago; there was no real eureka moment.

What are its USPs?
Andhra crafts are not very well known, so this is a big draw. The location on the beach is another. Nowadays, a cross section of the public prefers heritage boutique hotels; unlike the inaccessible five-stars, they are priced to attract and tap into the desires of millennials and professionals keen on a personalised experience. Luxury, these days, is defined by the space, amenities and decor, and it is also gauged by the overall experience and attention to detail. Hence, each piece of furniture comes with meticulously incorporated details. For instance, the room doors are made to look like the ones in Andhra puja rooms, typically decorated with bells; the benches are inspired by jhulas (swings), although in this case, they are fixed to the ground.

Could you explain the thought behind the design curation of one of the rooms?
In the Tholu Bommalata or the leather puppetry room, we took inspiration from the wandering artists and performers who used to go from village to village setting up fairs or carnivals (jatra in Telugu). They would sing songs, tell fortunes, sell wares, perform stunts and tattoo local people in exchange for money. One of the main attractions was the puppetmaster, who would recount religious stories based on epics. This ancient custom passed along mythological and local folk tales and news to the most remote corners for centuries. The decor was intended to reflect the backstory of this craft and the craftspeople.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?
We created thousands of mockups during the trial-and-error phase, and every aspect was challenging. Choosing fabrics for each room — there are about 24 — was quite a task. Then there were instances when, say, the paint would react to the lacquer coat, and we had to work out these kinds of kinks on the spot. In a hotel like this, there is the possibility of vandalism; guests might be curious about something they see on the walls and want to touch it. So, we had to ensure that the fabrics are not hard to maintain, that the finish on the door is not difficult to look after. All the art is removable, so if the hotel needs to be repainted in five years’ time, which it probably will, everything can be detached, preserved and put back. It’s easy to make a place look alluring, but to design it in a way so that it’s also easy to maintain is not.

Your takeaway from working with the artisans?
We often take the term ‘handmade’ for granted while we readily give credit to retailers or middlemen, and the actual creator ends up earning just a fraction of the revenue. I found that keeping it real and authentic is very important. For these artisans, preserving their dying arts is crucial, and the kind of passion with which the older generation wants to pass on their knowledge and skills is something I have not seen anywhere else. Their children on the other hand treat it as a business.

How has the city contributed to the hotel’s innovative design elements and overall aesthetic?
Vizag is one of the biggest cities in India, and the greenery, the beach, the crafts — all of these inform the hotel’s mood and feel. We hope that visitors will absorb the energy of the setting and engage with the state’s culture, whether it is by observing minute details or by requesting meetings with the artisans. We wanted to be faithful to the culture and core values while attempting something novel.

Krupanand Karthik, 33 Handicrafts Designer

How did you get involved in this project?
I was developing a range of fonts based on carvings, stucco work and sculptures in Indian temples about a year ago. That was when I happened to meet Ameet Mirpuri. I hit upon the idea of using these fonts to create the room numbers and the hotel logo.

We have used design playfully so that guests can experience and interact with the space in a meaningful way. Each of the crafts originally depicted mythological lore, societal customs and ancient legends. In the Tholu Bommalata rooms, the headboards are in the shape of an old-fashioned theatre, with puppets and theatre curtains for that touch of quirkiness. The colourful benches with wheels are inspired by soda carts, one of the main attractions at a jatra. The wardrobe comes with multiple doors and compartments, and if you open some, you will find a leather puppet inside!

Tell us what it took to dovetail the rich legacy of local craftsmen with the expectations of the global Indian consumer.
Everyone involved in this project is from Andhra and is essentially in it because of their passion. A fair bit is inspired by the ancient Andhra temple culture, which has substantially informed my own design philosophy. I have been deeply involved in the design of the headboards — the centrepiece of each room — and the curation and production of the artworks. Everything, whether it is a study table or the bathroom decor, is laden with details.

These days when people travel, it’s not about where they are going but their entire experience and takeaway, so we wanted to tell a story. We also have booklets in the room that inform guests about the crafts and point them to spots they can visit, in and outside Vizag, if they want to learn more.

Is this your first hotel project?
This is my first interiors project and it was challenging and educative, because from the conceptualisation to realisation, things change. I usually conduct workshops — from metal casting and embossing to wood carving and woodturning — for local governments, businesses and NGOs. The Andhra Crafts Council and the Telangana Crafts Council organise these, and a designer works in tandem with local artisans to help them create and market designs. I train existing artisans with new skills as well as new artisans who can come into the crafts. Some crafts have to be taught. And some are generational, but the new generation has to be mentored, and that’s where I come in.

As a trained and educated professional, what have you learned from working with local self-taught artists and sculptors?
Working at a design studio pays you well, but it doesn’t give me the creative satisfaction I crave. I prefer to collaborate with clusters in remote villages or towns outside the cities. Working at the grass-roots level has helped me push my boundaries. I am mainly interested in furniture and had not worked much with fabrics until I spent a year living in Narsapur, about four hours from the Vijayawada airport, where I learned how to knit and crochet from the local community.

Being trained and educated, we get into a mechanical way of doing things at times, and occasionally we need to unlearn. As students, we thought that we had to constantly innovate or improvise. So, when we work with a crafts cluster, we try to develop something out of the box that they haven’t seen before. But the most important thing is to be sensitive to the locals. If we want to change things up, we have to ensure it doesn’t dilute the core identity of the craft.

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