Writer-Activist Janhavi Prasada On Turning Heritage Into A Homestay
Amid the pleasant hills and quiet woods of Nainital, Uttarakhand, stands Janhavi Prasada’s countryside heritage homestay, Abbotsford. Prasada believes that “hospitality is all about nurturing your guests so that they go back with a sense of fulfilment, not depletion.” She follows this every day of her life, offering an inexplicable experience to her guests in the serene environment prevailing in the Kumaon hills.
SheThePeople.TV spoke to this #WomenofKumaon who is also a social activist, entrepreneur and author of Tales of Young Gandhi about responsible tourism, hosting writers residencies and women of Kumaon.
Your great-grandparents bought Abbotsford in 1903. You are carrying this century-old legacy of your family in Nainital. Why did you decide to open it to the public?
Art, interiors and restoration have been a passion with my mother and I have inherited that as a second skin from her. So my mother set about to restore Prasada Bhawan in 2007 since the family uses it as an annual summer house and the year round it remained shut. And we realised that if the house is not constantly aired, dusted, flushed, then it will crumble and so – Abbotsford came to life. Abbotsford is the original name of the estate before my great grandmother Purnima Devi Prasada bought it from John Hope Simpson in 1903.
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As a countryside heritage homestay, what does Abbotsford offer differently?
Abbotsford is a heritage property, and like every other old structure which was acquired from the British by zamindars and talukedar families of Awadh, erstwhile Uttar Pradesh. Abbotsford offers a reeking of nostalgia of the British Raj with its architecture, interiors, cuisine and service. One can cherish the stay with art, artefacts, the old wooden structure with mud-stone walls, stories of how the residents lived here, coffee mornings, tennis matches, flower competitions, polo, cricket, luncheons, forest picnics and pleasant walks.
The food we offer in our Cafe Chica is curated around the food that I grew up eating in the house – from Irish stews, roasts and good old “Ruble Tumble” egg. The dinner service again is from my grandmother’s recipes, which I cook sometimes on a wood fire at Abbotsford, or in the forest for our guests looking for a culinary experience.
Abbotsford is also known for hosting writers residencies, and the sought- after annual boutique literature festival called “Himalayan Echoes – Kumaon Festival of Literature & Arts.” It’s not just a hotel, it’s a hub of hospitality, art, culture, literature, heritage and food experiences from the region of Kumaon. The aim is to enhance local heritage, craft and culture with as many people across the world and make a difference in the region of Kumaon for its preservation and growth at the same time.
What are the challenges you faced in your journey as a peace activist and an advocate for social change?
I don’t see challenge as an impediment, I see challenges as milestones to overcome, and where there is a will there is always a way. One voice is not enough, but one’s action is more than enough. I have taken charge of the forest behind Abbotsford – and I make sure it’s litter free. Each time I go for a walk, or my staff walks around, we carry bags and come back with the litter – it’s a drop in the ocean but a pearl drop indeed.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
The mountains, of course! The Deodars, the fragrance of the forest, the mighty rocks, the dancing clouds, the change of colour in each season, the sprouting of life in nature, the ‘Mountain Wild.’
The Kumaon region is seeing women excelling in various sectors. Coming to the rural areas, the terrain and lifestyle give the women residing in the mountains a different kind of strength to endure difficulties and rise above them. What do you suggest can be done to improve their lives and provide them with opportunities the women living in urban areas are getting?
The women of Kumaon are hardy, working and educated. The hardy ones work in the fields, get wood fire from the forest, cook and clean their homes – they are super strong. The educated lot is no less than an MA or a BSc degree. they want jobs in teaching, technology and hospitality sector. But getting urban opportunities in rural areas is something that is happening organically now. So in rural areas 91 per cent of the women are in farm jobs, they farm, weave/knit, make pickles or jam, do organic herbs and spice cultivation. Popular brands source their products from Kumaon and this must increase so that a sustainable living condition is created, they earn a living and don’t have to sell their land and move to the cities.
As there is a culture of growth coming through in Kumaon, how do you see women as equal participants in this growth and what still needs to be put in place to encourage this?
I think women in Kumaon are more than equal in terms of bearing the economic brunt of running a family. It’s the men that need to be gender sensitive about women. Also, small towns like Nainital must incorporate their infrastructure and services, be it medical or educational, travel and transport, walkways and legal rights through the prism of gender priority.
Women in Kumaon are more than equal in terms of bearing the economic brunt of running a family.
How have the women in your life shaped your thought process and influenced your journey?
From my great-grandmother, who stood against the “Purdah” system in the early 1900’s, and was an excellent rider and educationist, to my grandmother, who was born a Princess, but with time and age did away with all the riches and ostentation for prayer, meditation and a simple life of giving us knowledge of the past, art of humility and a habit to give as much to others as you can, everyone has inspired me.
From my father, I carry the values of truth and loyalty and from my mother, love and purity of heart. I carry their impressions in my being in some part and the rest are inspirations that shape me as I move along to create my own experiments in life and learn from them like Gandhi!
I carry my family’s impressions in my being in some part and the rest are inspirations that shape me as I move along to create my own experiments in life.
What do you have to say about women entering entrepreneurship and those picking up unconventional paths here?
It’s great as long as they are enhancing at the same time, preserving the socio-culture and eco-habitat of their surroundings and adding to Kumaon in a sustainable fashion with the know-how and vision that they carry from their respective entrepreneurial backgrounds – it’s fabulous!
You are a filmmaker and an author, who holds a deep passion for photography. You are successfully running the hospitality business now, too. What is that one tip for a healthy work-life balance?
Time is what you make of it! Wake up early, sleep less.
If you’re passionate, you will find the time to do it.
How important do you think it is for young girls to see women in positions of leadership?
Very important, as women with their EQ bring life to any domain of work that they are associated with, rather than the typical black and white structures.
Also, the age-old history dating back to hundreds of centuries set a pattern in place where women have always borne the brunt of physical, mental and societal pressures – that has become the DNA of men – the way they treat women and, to a large extent, the way women see themselves as second fiddle.
Nationally, we have had strong leaders like Indira Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, regional political figures like Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and the Late Jayalalitha. The country always needs a strong woman’s voice.
What would you like to advice aspiring writers?
Travel, talk to people, get into their skin and read – especially our classics fiction, poetry, non-fiction – Tagore, Kalidasa, Prem Chand, Amir Khusro, Shivani, Mahadevi Verma, Nehru, Naipaul, Neruda, Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Plato, apart from the contemporary writers.
Join a local or your colony book club it’s really helpful to explore different writings. And, these days you have online blogs and social media — write two lines if you wish to share or just build on your writing/journal. Will come handy someday!
What would you like to advice aspiring women entrepreneurs looking to make a mark in the hospitality business in Kumaon?
Kumaon is rich in nature with the Himalayas, flora-fauna, organic produce, wildlife, birds, local crafts and textiles. It’s a hub for tourism but very few hospitality businesses follow “responsible tourism” and to stand out, that is what the women entrepreneurs must strive to bring in — just not run a hotel but to integrate into the local landscape and its people.
Women are homemakers, nurturers by instinct and hospitality is all about nurturing your guests so that they go back with a sense of fulfilment, not depletion.
Picture credit: Janhavi Prasada