I heard about the step wells of Bundi, in southern Rajasthan, about 10 years ago. I was travelling in the Thar desert, which divides India and Pakistan, and in that landscape of scorching heat, the idea of exploring damp, shadowy caverns of possibly bottomless dark water was tempting.
The first place I stayed at was Bundi Vilas, a family-run boutique hotel built into the walls of the crumbling Bundi Palace. Mr Sharma, who could have inspired Dev Patel’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, had been left in charge by his brother. He had the keys to the palace, and when he learned I was an artist, he insisted on giving me a tour, not just of the standard rooms, but of areas forbidden to the public too.
It was like being Alice-in-India. We passed through empty, pillared Mughal halls with white marble thrones to an inner courtyard with two intricately carved pillars. Climbing a hip-wide staircase, we emerged blinking on a garden terrace high above the roofs of Bundi. Overlooking the little garden is the Chitra Sala, a small open courtyard painted with murals depicting scenes from the life of Krishna. These were the first steps in my falling in love with Bundi, and the inspiration for my art.
My husband and I have come close to buying a crumbling haveli (merchant’s house) beneath the palace. We haven’t been quite brave enough yet, but with every annual journey back to Bundi we make another connection and reveal another layer of history – right back to the neolithic rock paintings a dusty half-hour 4×4 ride from town.
The Bundi step wells are so little-known you feel you’re discovering them for yourself. They were built to store water for drinking, washing and religious bathing, but are known as lovers’ meeting places. Rani Ki Bauri, the Queen’s step well, is an important place for women, traditionally confined to home, to meet and chat under the pretext of getting water.
Bundi is my St Ives. Light, dust, colour combinations, history … it’s all hypnotising. Its architecture has been a crucial part of my work: intricate stone fretwork screens and stately chhatri domes, but especially its fort, which Rudyard Kipling described as “such a palace as men build for themselves in uneasy dreams – the work of goblins rather than of men”.
The street life is mesmerising. The colour of the saris, the busyness of the vegetable market. The early morning milk arrival is a real event. It comes into Bundi in brass pots, strapped on to motorbikes ridden by mustachioed, turbaned men.
Keshav Bhati is the best local guide, a repository of local history and culture. I met him swinging his legs on a ledge outside Bundi Fort and he’s now a good friend. He sussed my interest and extended a half-hour tour into one that has lasted over 10 years. I run an annual tour of places that inspire my work and book him 12 months in advance.
It’s not all ancient buildings. For something a bit different, I cycle to an abandoned hunting lodge and a potter’s village, catch a film at Ranjit Talkies – a cinema next to the Hadoti Palace hotel – or join a wedding parade. When a groom sets off to the bride’s house, accompanied by a band, everyone is welcome. I always stay at Bundi Vilas. Breakfast, with attendant monkeys, is served on a roof terrace offering stunning views overlooking the town.
The street food is delicious. Make sure there’s a queue and that the food is cooked in front of you, but don’t miss the mirchi-mirchi – chillies stuffed with potato and chilli in a chilli batter. It’s fried revenge for the Raj. Haveli Katkoun guesthouse does glorious pakoras and lassi, and from its roof you can watch the bats fly out of the palace at sunset.
• Natasha Kumar’s Bundi-inspired works will be on sale at the Affordable Art Fair Hampstead in London this weekend (entrance from £10, 11-14 May). For details of her India tours see natashakumar.co.uk