THE WORD ‘HOLIDAY’ means so many different things to different people. For some, it is a time to relax and do nothing, whether at home or abroad and to read —and sunbathe— by a swimming pool. Some seek adventure or danger and enjoy staying somewhere less comfortable than their home and following some self-improvement.
When I interviewed Yash Chopra, who travelled much of the world, he said there was no concept of holiday in his youth. One visited family or went to weddings or on pilgrimages. The idea of the holiday is seen in Indian films of the 1960s onwards with films that celebrate exotic locations (Love in Tokyo, An Evening in Paris), or Kashmir as a paradise on earth (Kashmir Ki Kali). Dev Anand as the eponymous guide in the movie Guide (1965), loosely based on RK Narayan’s novel, The Guide (1958), set the novel trend in the rising tourist industry in Rajasthan as palaces became hotels. The Indian Tourism Development Corporation was set up in 1966 and a growth of domestic tourism was later followed by international tourism after economic liberalisation in the 1990s.
Foreign tourists, such as Fanny Parkes, came to India from the nineteenth century, and in one of the early Indo- German collaborations, The Light of Asia/Prem Sanyas, a silent film directed by Franz Osten and Himanshu Rai (1925), the opening sequence shows foreign tourists, who then learn the story of Gautam Buddha, the Light of Asia.
The 1960s saw the hippy trail and among many texts which engage with it are Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola (1979), a wonderful look at the marketing of the mystical East, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s novels and Merchant-Ivory film collaborations. This was followed by more backpackers as the publication of the Lonely Planet guides from the 1970s opened up India to students on their vacations and gap years. Including me.
I like to visit places that are interesting and make me think. India is always my favourite place as I have never been bored there in forty years of regular and frequent visits. It can be overstimulating at times as there is so much to engage with — the people, landscapes, buildings, languages, literature, music, and of course, the films. India used to be a tough place to travel, but now you can choose utmost luxury if that is what you want.
I took my first flight after the pandemic this year. Of course, it was to India. Then I went to Venice in April after a long absence. Despite the constant crowds on the Grand Canal, it remains a magical place. Even from a crowded vaporetto, it’s a pleasure to look at the fabulous buildings which inspired the Victorian Venetian style, seen across the world, not least in Mumbai, and note the influence of the Arab and Ottoman world on what we see as European.
In early June, I went to Corfu for a family holiday. Most of us know of the island from reading Gerald Durrell’s books when we were children. It’s also known as the birthplace of the late Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark. He was born in Mon Repos, a villa that was used by the Greek royal family, and originally built for Frederick Adam, the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands and his Corfiot wife. Adam was later Governor of Madras (as it then was). After centuries of Venetian, French and British rule, Corfu and the Ionian islands joined Greece in 1864. There remains much evidence of this history, not least in its name—Corfu is the Byzantine version of the Greek Kerkyra—while the Venetians left a magnificent fort and elegant buildings. However, Corfu has an older history and may be the land of the Phaeacians, whose naval prowess is recalled by Homer’s epithet for them: “long-oared”. It is identified as the home of Nausicaa whose father, Antinous, hosted Odysseus as his guest and helped send him on his way back to Ithaca (now Ithaki).
Dev Anand as the eponymous guide in the movie Guide (1965) loosely based on RK Narayan’s novel, The Guide (1958), set the novel trend in the rising tourist industry in Rajasthan as palaces became hotels
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Gerald Durrell and his siblings were born in India to parents who were also born in India. Their father was born in Dum Dum, Kolkata, and educated in what became the IIT-Roorkee, before working for the Railways, while their mother was born in Roorkee. Gerald was born in Jamshedpur (1925) and although he left India at a very young age, he recalls his fascination with animals began with a visit to a zoo in India. His older brother, the writer Lawrence Durrell, was born in Jalandhar (1912) and first went to school at St Joseph’s, North Point, Darjeeling. His book about his time in Corfu, Prospero’s Cell, tells a different story from Gerald Durrell’s books and evokes the interwar years in a very different culture from the England they left.
My husband’s work took us to Norway which I first visited 23 years ago as a guest of the Stavanger Indian Film Festival. We attended a conference to commemorate the discovery of the leprosy bacillus 150 years ago by Gerhard-Henrik Armauer Hansen in Bergen. Many people are unaware that leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, is not yet eradicated.
Bergen was also the home of Edvard Grieg, whose music is key to the national identity of Norway. Norway had been part of the union of Denmark-Norway for almost three hundred years, and then part of the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway from 1814 to1905. Grieg is a major figure in the tradition of European classical music and his use of Norwegian folk music in his compositions made him one of the key figures in defining Norwegian culture. The role of the arts in shaping national cultures, drawing on ancient traditions to form the modern and the international are perhaps more familiar from literature and film. Grieg’s summer house in Bergen is a monument to this national culture, and a timeline at Grieg’s house with the major events of his life above the timeline and the history of Norway below, makes this clear. Visitors can attend a concert and visit his house which is adapted from traditional wooden house construction.
In Oslo, the role of art is also celebrated in the massive Munch Museum, which presents the artist Edvard Munch’s work beyond just The Scream. Children dash around the building and there are special exhibition rooms for them to engage with as part of forging a Norwegian identity.
I am no historian of any of these places but as a casual tourist, one comes away with such impressions of a place and realises that India, one of the world’s great civilisations with a vast and living history, can do much more to present its national culture to its citizens and the tourist. I’m always astonished how many people with the means to do so, have not visited Ajanta and Ellora or Hampi. I have been surprised how few tourists, especially foreign visitors, one sees in Gujarat, for example, at magnificent sites such as Modhera and Pavagadh, let alone in the big cities.
It’s not just history or elite culture that one learns as a tourist but also a sense, however limited, of people. I remember the warm Corfiots with their sense of humour, and the reserved Norwegians. And of course, the wonderful varieties of food away from the international chains, so Venetian cichetti (snacks), or Corfiot mezze, or Norwegian brown cheese. I have never tried to eat whale which is readily available in Norway. I don’t like too much adventure.