Vishalla, evolved out of a passionate desire to live away from urban centres, is a little haven outside Ahmedabad. The rustic surroundings of this complex house an ethnic restaurant, a utensils museum and a few handicrafts shops. An evening here is a memorable experience.
The ethnic boom of the 1980s spawned a crop of furniture, clothing, even restaurants. In the process, ‘ethnic’ became a travesty of sorts where antique carved doors opened into fully air conditioned living spaces and crepe and jersey were replaced by khadi hi-fashion garments. Ethnicity was seen as a fashionable, amusing plaything which had to be diluted by high-tech accompaniments if it were not to be downright uncomfortable.
Eight kilometres from the centre of Ahmedabad is Vishalla, a restaurant which sets out to recreate rural Gujarat in all its aspects. Here is the first commercial proposition in the country which makes no concession to modern living, not even providing electricity. Far from being uncomfortable, however, Vishalla provides a grand evening out and compels visitors to return over and over again.
Its creator/proprietor, Surendrabhai Patel, has travelled extensively to remote villages all over the state, in his professional capacity of interior designer.His intense love for, and intimate knowledge of life in rural Gujarat is clearly reflected in every aspect of Vishalla. First time visitors who are prepared to be critical of the place, find cynicism dissolving into open admiration.This is not merely because Patel has “done his homework thoroughly”, but because Vishalla has evolved out of his passionate involvement with life away from urban centres. So deep rooted is this involvement that Patel would happily transform the houses of his clients into mud walled dwellings, given half the chance! It was, in fact, precisely because his work took him further and further away from his real interests that he decided to create something entirely on his own. Something moreover,that he would be able to share with others. And so Vishalla was born.
On the outskirts of Ahmedabad, on the way to Sarkhej Roza, Vishalla has the sort of silence that is hard to find in a city. Growing out of the sandy soil are a profusion of plants that have been cleverly used to separate quiet nooks from courtyards and service areas. Hundreds of kerosene lanterns cast a soft glow around and after prepaying for a meal at a counter near the entrance, the visitor is free to shop at the tiny crafts shop, visit the Utensils Museum, or just recline on one of the string cots in the courtyard till dinner is served.
The shop stocks many of Gujarat’s colourful handicrafts—shawls, quilts, chests, embroideries. Further on, the Utensils Museum is a clear reflection of Patel’s involvement with yet another aspect or rural Gujarat. Several years ago, Surendrabhai chanced to visit Ahmedabad’s wholesale brass market and saw beautifully crafted brass utensils being smelted to make more utilitarian designs for the modern market. Reacting instinctively, Patel bought the lot and so saved it from a fiery fate. Realising that he could not possibly save every traditional brass utensil in Gujarat from the same fate, he nevertheless wanted to keep some kind of record of utensils of olden times, and thus the museum came into existence.
Today hundreds of exhibits, mainly of brass and copper are the collection of one man. Not all of them are equally rare or valuable, but then, that is not the point of the museum. Not generally realised is the fact that utensils are specific to one or another community of this remarkable state. Thus, maldharis or cattle owners used wide mouthed brass pots whose design facilitated the milking of cows!
As unique as the subject of the collection is the design of the museum itself. Built on an open plan around a large grassy quadrangle, the single storeyed, mud walled structure sets off to perfection the exhibits and blends perfectly with the rest of Vishalla.
Those visitors who just want to soak in the silence and the rustic atmosphere head for the central courtyard to relax on string cots under the stars, or in one or the other of the quiet nooks around the area. Puppeteers, singers, even magicians, have regular performances, but the area is so large that at the other end of the courtyard only faint strains of music or voices can be heard. On chilly winter nights when a series of fires are lit in shallow pits, the fragrance of wood smoke combined with lilting folk melodies instantly transport guests into a world far removed from the snarl of city life.
Dinner is served in a series of thatch roofed structures supported by wooden pillars. Each but has a low trestle table at which guests sit cross-legged on the floor. Served on dried leaves stitched together, the food is of the all-you-can-eat thali system. Gujarati food is a masterpiece of textures and flavours, and at Vishalla reached unsurpasssed heights. Washed down with buttermilk and a tangy drink made with cumin seeds, there are a variety of pulses and vegetables to be eaten with rice and fried breads. Accompaniments include tiny clay pots of molasses made without any chemicals and pure clarified butter and salads made with all sorts of surprising, delicious combinations.
Meat eating in Gujarat is confined to a few communities only and in general by Gujarati cuisine is meant the vegetarian diet of the majority of the population. Vishalla is no excep-tion. In fact, concessions have been made for some orthodox sects who frequent Vishalla and so no cooked dishes include onions or garlic. The water too, is boiled twice and then filtered, obviating the need for mineral water.
So relaxed is the atmosphere at Vishalla, and so effortless the service, that the visitor may be excused for thinking that the costs of running a place like this are negligible. In truth, had Vishalla been a conventional restaurant with carpeting and concrete, the cost of maintaining it would have been cheaper. Gardeners, sweepers, cooks, servers, a man whose only job it is to clean out the hundreds of kerosene lamps each day, trim the wicks and light them at night, puppeteers, singers, someone to carry around an incense bowl to keep mosquitoes away, a potter who sits on the premises, making clay pots that are used only once before being destroyed…. Vishalla employs a total of 40 persons, all dressed in the attire of villagers.
At first, all Surendrabhai Patel wanted was to let Vishalla pay for itself. That it has become something of a legend is, to him, quite incidental. However, the truest indicator of the success of any venture is the number of imitators it spawns and Vishalla has clones all over the country. Whether they are quite as delightful or successful is another story.