Isabel Palace and the Dance


In Khajuraho I stayed for ten days at the Hotel Isabel Palace, a very pleasant small hotel run by an extended family. Surendra, the young manager, is the son of the eldest of seven brothers, some still in Khajuraho and involved in this or other local businesses; others have gone to Europe or Japan.

I stayed here last year and came back because it’s an attractive and reasonably priced hotel, but chiefly because Surendra is a gem. Calm, friendly, attentive, young and cute. When I was here last year the hotel was already in its off season. The temperature had risen to 108 some weeks earlier than usual, and I arrived sick with a strangely persistent respiratory ailment that began in Bihar during last year’s unsuccessful attempt to follow up on eco-san toilets there.

Last year Surendra was solicitous when I was not feeling well and fun when I was feeling better. This year we have gone on a couple of excursions together, even though he’s had a hotel full of guests most of the time. A handful of cousins handle various duties here, along with an uncle or two (Surendra is the son of the eldest of seven brothers—grandfather and grandmother are in residence on the ground floor of the hotel) but Surendra seems to be the linchpin. He’s only 27. He reminds me of Nepalis I know—the strong family connections, the attentiveness to guests’ needs.

Surendra and I above Ken River gorge in Panna Reserve

Most visitors come for a couple of days and are gone, but Surendra’s way of tending to guests leads to good word-of-mouth business. Good Trip Advisor ratings also help. There was a group of Thai monks here to see the temples, a small group of Russians with a Russian woman tour leader who comes several times a year, and a large group of Argentines brought by another group leader who comes frequently. That group is vegan and got a special menu prepared for them. I horned in on it one lunchtime with Surendra’s blessing. I get little perks like that for being here for a second extended stay. Papaya for breakfast. Salads from the garden. He put me in a larger room this year for the same price as last year’s even though I’m here during the peak season. I have a whole extra space for doing yoga—if I would venture onto my mat. But it’s already hot and I’m curiously lazy.

Breakfast on the roof, hills of Panna Tiger reserve in the distance


Thai monks being served by Ravindra, the very nice waiter who brought me fresh papaya

In addition there was a young couple from the Netherlands with whom I went on a little morning “safari” to the nearby Panna tiger reserve, along with various Americans, Europeans and Indians who have come and gone.

Sunset in Khajuraho

One of the uncles—now a resident of Belgium—owns the hotel. Surendra gets a salary. I have just discovered it’s far too low for the quality of his work. “Indian system,” he says.

I am retracing my steps from last year to some extent, talking again to some of the same people, along with some new ones, about the river and water and agricultural issues here, because I was too sick and overwhelmed by the heat to be able to absorb much information last April. This year it’s heading further into the high 90s each day, so it’s getting difficult once again to function past early morning. But at least so far I’m not sick!

One of the famous temples of Khajuraho

One reason I came directly here after a few days in Delhi was that the yearly classical dance festival, which I had attended back in 2010, was starting soon after my arrival. I found it magical the first time, and attended all seven nights from beginning to end, even though I didn’t always understand the aesthetic or the lengthy mimed stories from the Mahabharata. I enjoyed much of the dancing this time too, and found several performers rivetingly good. But some of the magic was gone—both because some performances seemed mediocre and because the audience was so nonchalant, coming and going, incessantly walking or standing in front of me, yelling into phones or talking to each other.

Trio of Kathak dancers.  One of the Khajuraho temples in the background, behind the phony stage arches

Surendra found the little he saw boring, he said, and left after a few minutes. Classical dance has an aesthetic that is not readily accessible to foreigners, nor to many Indians apparently. It is static to some degree, and you have to pay attention to precise movements of hands, arms, feet and face. I wondered if some of the performances I felt were mediocre this year were watered down classical dance in an effort to appeal to a broader audience. If so, the choreographers and dancers may have lost out on both counts—offering bad classical, but without broader appeal. I sensed a bit of Bollywood-ization in some of the acts. Of course, you can also see elements from classical dance in the big performance numbers in Bollywood musicals, so it works both ways.

Memory is not a good judge. But my recollection of the magical and expert performances of 2010—along with the delightfully chilly late February weather—will remain.

I am unable to post my badly recorded snippets from this year’s Kathak and Bharatnatyam performances because my level of blog doesn’t allow me to post my video content and it’s not worth upgrading for my poor little movies.

In lieu of that I’ll add some links below for more information about the dance.

There is a lot more on the web if you get interested in searching.

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