A hotel’s primary function may be to provide a home away from home for travellers, but more and more properties have created amenities and programming that make them a destination in their own right. Let’s imagine a bright yellow retreat perched on top of a hill, surrounded by the backdrop of lush green hills. Then, imagine a bunch of creative beings inside the retreat, painting on their canvas and giving form to their expressions of myriad kinds. What a sight to behold!
Such was my experience when I visited jüSTa Mukteshwar Retreat & Spa in February to attend the fifth edition of Chitrashaala — an international art residency program held from February 3 to 10, 2023. A joint project between jüSTa Hotels & Resorts and fashion designer Deepika Govind, it was started in 2015 with the goal to foster cultural exchange between artists from various socio-cultural backgrounds. Moreover, the residency is curated by renowned art critic, Anirudh Chari.
Art and nature go hand in hand. And when it’s a site that’s disconnected from worldly affairs amidst the mystifying Himalayas, then creativity has no limitations. This location was unrivalled, especially when the snow-capped Nanda Devi mountains peeked through heavy fog and mist at frequent intervals. The towering peaks served serene inspiration to the artists (including yours, truly). If these scenes encapsulated my mind, imagine the explosion of creativity inside of an artist.
Around the art
It was almost 3 pm when I reached the property, travelling from Delhi. The winter sun was piercing through the tall pine trees that surrounded the property. As I ventured around the courtyard, the space was abuzz with artists. Some were busy painting on their canvases, immersed in their artwork while others were deep in conversation with one another. This sight of watching artists from all over the world under one roof create marvels of magic left me feeling profound.
“There is no particular theme at Chitrashaala. There is no restriction on what the artists can produce. Some get inspired by what they see around them, others draw themes from conversations with others — it’s entirely their call. All we want is that they find inspiration in what they see,” says Chari.
Designed as both a learning experience and a grand creative gathering, Chitrashaala exposes visual artists to a wide range of work in terms of form, content and style. This contributes to the development of their artistic expression along with encouraging creative dialogues and collaborations.
The participating artists make up a good potpourri from different countries. A total of 52 artists — 22 from India and 30 from countries like Germany, Poland, Egypt, Thailand, Norway, Jordan and more participated to bring collective works of art sans any boundaries.
During the three days I spent at Chitrashaala 2023, my interactions with several artists also gave me insights into their thought processes and how beautifully they had interwoven their personal stories onto the canvas. Most of the time I was overwhelmed yet also filled with joy to witness such works of beauty.
Another observation that fascinated me was how people from diverse backgrounds — in spite of some language barriers — were eager to learn from fellow artists and share their feedback constructively. Art truly transcends boundaries.
Personal anecdotes through art
All my days at the resort were livelier because I could walk around, watch the artists at work, and even stop to admire the paintings coming to life from scratch. Each artist was courageous to shed their inhibitions and shape personal narratives in their artworks.
Hanne Haukom, a ceramic artist from Norway, has participated in four editions of Chitrashaala. Her transition to painting, from ceramic as a medium, is an intriguing story. Calcutta-based artist, Arunava Mondal was another interesting find. You could see how the artist laid bare his emotions through colours and textures, complex forms and shapes. And, although mostly monochromatic, they explore the multiplicity embedded within hues, much like the nuances and meanings found in nature and human life.
There’s also Othman Shibab, an artist from Jordan, who takes inspiration from puppet work. It is through puppets and the strings attached to them that he depicts human life's control, much as it is through thoughts and emotions.
But it was contemporary artist, Mithu Jordar’s work that moved me the most. “I use hair as a metaphor to express my connection with current social patterns, personal incidents and mythological tales,” she shares. As she painted her artwork, she depicted flying hair rising from majestic mountains representing freedom. But it was more about the idea of how hair undergoes changes as it experiences the brunt of emotions, and how important it will always be for a woman.
There were also many artists who were attending the residency for the very first time. As I walked around the space, watching the artists at work, I was amazed to see how totally immersed they were in their artwork. But I noticed a strong common trait among them all. As I spoke with the artists, they appeared to have a dainty and shy demeanour. It was almost rebellious to see them portray such strong themes on canvas that gave me a fresh perspective on the subject.
Why such art residency programs are important
In the art world, there is only a crop of hotels that take it one step further to actually bring the artists in, inviting them to stay on-site and respond directly to the unique architectural features. The intersection between curated art and hospitality brings an immersive new perspective. On a very basic level, it gives an artist time and space to work, away from their normal lives. From interpersonal connections to building intercultural bonds, these residency art programs serve as a repository for young artists to connect with or those who are looking for a platform.
Most of the original artworks made by the artists in the previous editions of the art residency and this year’s are displayed across all the jüSTa hotels. For instance, the rooms have paintings and art installations from various editions of Chitrashaala that have surpassed art to become an emotional thread that even binds the travellers. You see, a residency can be a crucial boost to an artist's career. It is all so surreal to have artists of all persuasions being invited to spaces that inspire them to create and share their passion and potentially foster new creative works.
Chitrashaala is a distinctive manifestation of the love of art that, while entrenched in the local setting, takes place in the Indian hospitality sector. Isn’t it a passionate effort to connoisseurs of art transcending boundaries who share similar beliefs and make art the greatest winner?