On a wintry Sunday evening, with RK beach endlessly stretching behind me, I watch Santosh literally carve magic out of wood. He meticulously chisels a simple block of ‘ankudu’ into a spinning top, creating ridges with just a little bit of pressure, and using natural dyes like turmeric and indigo to break the light-brown monotony of the material. He then pulls out some kind of a dried leaf and patiently rubs it on the coloured areas, revealing a very shiny lacquer finish. As he proudly holds the finished Etikoppaka spinning top in the palm of his hand, sheepishly smiling at the cameras, I can see that he’s beaming with pride. And somehow, I am too.
Hailing from a tiny village in Andhra Pradesh, Santosh is one of the few artisans who are still practising the dying art of making Etikoppaka Bommalu or simply, Etikoppaka toys. Named after the village from where the art originates, Etikoppaka toys are made out of ankudu - wood acquired from the bark of a specific tree grown only in that village - and are known for their application of lacquer coating. Developed as a local craft by some of the early kingdoms that existed in present-day Andhra Pradesh, the skill of making Etikoppaka toys is a family heirloom passed down from one generation to another - and seldom practised by anyone outside that circle.
Until very recently, Etikoppaka, like many other local handicrafts, was slowly vanishing. But conscious efforts by organisations such as Lepakshi and the state government have truly breathed new life into a treasure that could have easily been lost to time. And taking this celebration of indigenous handicrafts a notch higher is Vizag’s Palm Beach Hotel - the premises of which are home to the beautiful Andhra Arts and Crafts Hotel.
As the heritage wing of Palm Beach Hotel in Vizag, the Andhra Arts and Crafts Hotel is a visual treat from the minute you walk in. With a huge mural of Telugu Thalli - a goddess symbolising good agriculture harvest, giant cartwheels hanging from the roof, and multiple chocolate-coloured monkeys holding up the pillars in the lobby - this hotel is inspired from Andhra’s deep-rooted artistic essence. Making use of Andhra’s lesser-known handicrafts like leather shadow puppetry and Etikoppaka toys, the Arts and Crafts Hotel is a unique storytelling experience with an evolved aesthetic that is also traditionally inspired.
With a total of 24 boutique rooms, the Andhra Arts and Crafts hotel is divided into 4 separate sections - each inspired by a unique Andhra art form; namely, Tholu Bommalata (leather shadow puppetry), Budithi brass work, Kalamkari pen art, and Etikoppaka toys. “Andhra does not have as many art forms as say, Rajasthan, so we had to do a lot of research before we picked these four”, says Ameet Mirpuri, the hotel’s interior designer, as he gives me an insightful tour of the property. But despite the supposedly limited options, I can’t help but admire the kind of thought and effort that’s gone into setting up every nook and cranny. Every handle, every wardrobe, every bed backdrop has been treated so beautifully.
Each of the 24 rooms come not just with their own art-themed interiors but also with their own specific colour, carefully picked from a restricted colour palette, that binds together the architectural magnificence of the setting. Moreover, no one colour is repeated in any of the other rooms. Even the fabrics have specifically been sourced with the design tonality in mind. “In case of the Etikoppaka rooms, we took our base colour of the room from the Etikoppaka toys itself. However, since Etikoppaka toys use natural dyes only, we found it challenging to reproduce these colours”, says Mirpuri.
From intricate wardrobe detailing to the exquisite headboard artwork to the unusual bench (that can easily double up as a bed), every room is a mix of pragmatism and lesser-known art elements that make use of local talent on a very large scale. “We reached out to many local artisans and finally settled on a team of 30 to work on this project”, says Mirpuri when asked about the logistical details of the project.
As I float from one room to another, mesmerised by the lavish treatment of the interiors, I’m overwhelmed with how different the experience of stepping into each room is. In the Etikoppaka rooms, it’s the headboard that stands out. Inspired from ‘Pandirimancham’ which is a colonial bed found in many Andhra homes even today, the headboard is adorned with other traditional elements like cane weaving and wood carvings. Even the bench is inspired from cement benches found in many traditional Andhra homes.
Whereas the Budithi brass rooms are an exquisite example of splendid craftsmanship and the use of locally sourced natural resources used for tell-tale black coating. Taking inspiration from temple sculptures of women adorning heavy gold jewellery, the headboard is a blend of regular prints with 3D artwork. “Because making a brass mould is difficult, we sometimes just took the designs that the artisans had already made and slightly altered our room designs accordingly”, says Mirpuri. Similarly, in case of the Kalamkari rooms, Mirpuri and team had to reinvent and make the colours more loud and boisterous, even though traditionally, the colours used in Kalamkari are extremely dull. “We’ve also added elements of leather puppetry to just give it that liveliness”, he adds.
But it wasn’t until I’d entered the Tholu Bommalata (shadow leather puppetry) room that I was truly awestruck. A bench inspired by the old-school vibrance of roadside soda vendor carts, an interactive wardrobe with unique open/close shutters, and a headboard inspired from an actual theatre performance complete with rising curtains and theatre lights - the room was truly a work of art. And somehow, the idea of spending a night in the room felt a little impudent. “The people involved in shadow leather puppetry often wander from one village to another. They would sing ballads, tell fortunes, sell amulets, charm snakes, mend pots etc. - essentially making it a very festive puppet theatre of sorts”, says Mirpuri.
As we move on to the terrace, past the snaking staircase and an elevator that seems rather incongruous with the quaint setting of the art hotel, I’m once again facing the sweeping RK beach. A space good enough to host a gathering of a couple dozen guests, the terrace is still currently under construction but the overarching pine wood interiors already look like they have stories to tell.
The Andhra Arts and Crafts Hotel is, undoubtedly, the result of months of hard work - 15 months, to be precise. An initiative that has added considerable value to Andhra Pradesh - both culturally and economically - it’s an unparalleled, indigenous experience representative of Andhra’s arts and craft heritage that is being painstakingly revived through efforts of the entire community.
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