Just when the world couldn’t seem stranger in the wake of a global pandemic, the eerily dormant hospitality sector awoke to a new catchphrase called ‘revenge travel’. An unlikely euphemism, it sure provided immense relief to ailing hoteliers worldwide, whose livelihoods had started to gasp amidst the depths of financial despair. For all those of you who are yet to catch up with the buzzword, revenge travel is a newly coined phrase used to describe the recent trends in global travel, wherein people opt for nearby destinations in their bid to beat the lockdown blues.
A post-pandemic India is redeeming its otherwise elusive outbound travellers in humbler holiday destinations, and the domestic segment’s erstwhile budget travellers too are availing some unprecedented discounts at several luxury properties that they could have once barely dreamt of. These tidal changes have rendered the hospitality business into a considerable feat and fortunately, I had the timely realisation that the only way to survive a precarity is by adapting to it. And thus, I adopted a host of safety protocols before announcing my Manali-based boutique resort open.
Admittedly, mine was amongst the region’s first few hotels to take this bold step at a time when India was still contending with the COVID paranoia. But this viral trepidation too had its supernovas. These were a slightly more daring lot of citizens who had made peace with the longer sojourn that COVID was going to make on our planet, and began rerouting their thoughts around means of adapting around ‘the new normal’ for the sake of one’s sanity. They were willing to board their private vehicular chambers to embark upon road journeys that led them to destinations of reassured sanitation.
However, with the bolder travellers ready to travel and us ready to host, the situation was far from calling two to tango. Mine was amongst the states to reopen its borders with more stringent entry rules, which called for COVID tests to be conducted within a narrow span of 72 hours prior to arrival. Corresponding paperwork related to hotel bookings or work related reasons for travel were verified at three separate inspection points as well. Given Himachal’s relatively scanty network of medical institutions, a hotelier could barely argue otherwise. After all, we couldn’t afford a full scale outspread of the virus to teach us that in the equation of prevention versus cure, we barely had the second option.
Considering these set of preconditions, I was surprised to see the brave contingent of patrons opting to get tested before promptly setting off for the Himalayas. And contrary to the local disapproval that we hoteliers had predicted, our fellow inhabitants were more than forthcoming to welcome a revival of the economy that had dwindled at a record low. For a destination that relies on the brief spell of 90 days for a season, Manali’s summer months had been devoured by the Coronavirus.
For those of us who thought it odd for Mall Road to spend a deserted summer, it was even odder to see our quieter months thronged with tourists eager to escape the mundanities of the lockdown. But this oddity was warmly welcomed by one and all. I, for one witnessed the heralding of ‘workations’, or holidayers who had begun to weave their work routine in their chosen vacation spots away from home. The steadily rising trend of ‘word from home’ coupled with a prolonged closure of educational institutes provided greater flexibility to families who thirsted for wanderlust. As compared to the long list of guest requirements that one is so used to heeding towards, all these workation-ers asked for was a table to work on and uninterrupted access to Wi-fi. And lo and behold! This seemingly steady influx of committed travellers soon metamorphosed into a full blown bonanza with booking charts skyrocketing during the otherwise lull winter months. Never before had my apple orchards seen these many snow men being styled out of freshly descended snow. Manali beats in a different pulse this winter, convincing us all that the worst is now behind us.
Amidst this merriment however, I received an expected dose of criticism that perceived the resumption of leisure travel as blatantly hedonistic. This segment called for better responsibility and restraint, and instances of viral outspreads being blamed solely upon irresponsible tourism are well-known. Nevertheless, this was the risk that we were collectively willing to pay in order to resurrect the fastest growing industry in the world. The mental wellbeing of an estranged person becomes all the more imperative to address through leisure outlets, making recreation no less than a necessity of sorts. This win-win between the discerning traveller and a hotelier’s personal ledger aside, a healthy flow of post-pandemic tourism also helps regulate the larger economy. The lesser-waged workforce, whose payrolls bore the sharpest brunt worldwide heave a big sigh of relief with this steady influx of business, which also marks an end to the hand to mouth existence that Coronavirus had descended upon so many.
So, each time that I head to my buffet counters to sanitise up and help serve the day’s fare, I am reminded of yet another way that I, my guests and the staff here have collectively adapted around the new normal in a post-pandemic world. That despite all that 2020 brought with it, we have begun to find our way around it, that we have all made it to a more hopeful, eager and promising 2021.
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THE BIG FAT PATIALA WEDDING
It was a wedding royale though close knit and attended by only those very deeply associated with the family. Princess Sehar Inder Singh, the daughter of Tikka Raninder Singh of Patiala, tied the knot with Aditya Narang, son of Devin and Priya Narang. Sehar, a philanthropist entrepreneur who works with her mother Rishma Kaur in her company Berger Paints when not pushing causes noble causes and gender issues in Punjab, was thrilled when her grandfather Captain Amarinder Singh sang the suhag. A ceremonial song sung traditionally by the bride’s family, the Chief Minister of Punjab, a celebrated war hero, a historian and a great chef added yet another laurel to his prolific cap.
The bahus of Rampur and Patna BolangitThe bahus of Rampur and Patna Bolangi
Rishma Kaur, who straddles two lives, one as the bahu and the other as the entrepreneur, looked stunning in a red shalwar-kameez. The two-day affair saw the first families of Rampur, Kashmir, Patna Bolangir and Kapurthala in attendance. While the women were seen dressed in their signature splendorous shalwar-kameez and ornamental tika on their forehead, the men in their achkans and churidaars brought out the family’s jewelled swords.
Of all the tales the most endearing was to see Maharaja Kapurthala Brigadier Sukhjit Singh bond with his course-mate Captain Amarinder Singh.
One fort, many destinies: Priyamvada Singh’s homecoming and the re-becoming of Meja
There was little in terms of life transformation that Priyamvada Singh had assumed while working amidst the hustle and bustle of Mumbai’s media kaleidoscope until she undertook a small homeward break from work. The former assistant director and media freelancer, who had enjoyed eight highly successful years in the film and television industry, decided on taking a quick impromptu trip to her ancestral village, a visit that would alter her life forever.
Hailing from the Meja thikana of Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district, Priyamvada returned to her motherland only to discover that her family’s ancestral fort lay neglected and in shambles. The fort’s dilapidated form was particularly heart-wrenching for Priyamvada, considering that it used to serve as an abode to her illustrious forefathers, the Rawats of Meja, who bore the historical privilege of serving the erstwhile Maharanas of Mewar as one of their several umraos (the highest feudal barons). Despite the changing milieu of democratic India and its regal discontents, Priyamvada took it upon herself to restore the Meja fort back to its original glory.
Her combined decisions of relinquishing her established mode of occupation and return to a rural setting in order to single-handedly undertake a complex renovation project were initially met with a fair deal of reservations by her hesitant family members and the people of Meja. However, her strong focus and determination would soon prove that Priyamvada’s intents were anything but faint hearted. She describes the start of her journey: “initially my family was quite reluctant to have me- a single girl (I was unmarried then), stay there all alone, and the entire village was also sceptical and cynical about my move. But my hard work and determination would replace their doubts in the time to come. What started as a passion project of a more personal nature soon transformed into a movement of community upliftment.”
As she eloquently puts it, Priyamvada’s restoration project, an idea that had been generated out of personal motives, had soon manifested into a progressive opportunity for the village community of Meja. Her specific choice of deploying traditional construction styles for the renovation process, such as dry masonry, chuna plaster, samla work, etc. created employment opportunities for many of the village’s retired masons and artisans and enabled them to rediscover their professions. It didn’t take these men long to revive their rusted tools and skillsets by the means of Priyamvada’s renovation drive on the completion of which, they received work offers for other conservation projects within the state.
The winds of change and occupational reinvigoration were not limited to Meja’s menfolk alone. An increasing number of women from the village began to join Priyamvada’s labour force. “Considering that the project was being initiated by a girl, many local women felt encouraged to join me as labourers. Their families had no reluctance about sending their wives and daughters to work for another woman. Most of these women were housewives who had never earned a livelihood before”, Priyamvada adds. She also credits this female inclusion of labour for providing her a first-hand glimpse into women empowerment. In her words, “I saw the rising confidence levels of these women once they realised their own potential beyond domestic chores.”
Even the physically disabled populace of Meja were welcomed by Priyamvada in order to contribute in accordance with their personal capacities. The financial independence that they received in return was accompanied by a bolstered sense of self-confidence and independence.
As Priyamvada and her localised workforce heralds the revisitation of Fort Meja, it is duly commendable to note its deliberate constitution as an upcoming platform for communitarian activities. In this regard, Priyamvada has introduced the concept of a community library that is being set up in the fort’s premises. An online donation drive conducted by her resulted in the successful collection of over two thousand books that have been generously contributed by her friends and associates. “Since the area lacks public libraries, this initiative will hopefully open a world of avenues for the villagers of Meja and around”, she says.
The Meja Fort compound has also served as a popular venue for several community-based activities, such as festive celebrations, blood donation camps and yoga workshops. In an effort to revive age-old traditions, Priyamvada is bringing her rural community together to jointly celebrate local festivals such as Gangaur, Jal-Jhoolni Ekadashi, etc. In order to arouse cultural interest amongst the youngsters, inter-village competitions are being organised in order to incentivise socio-cultural activities around the festivals.
As a part of the transformative wave that Priyamvada instilled in Meja, it would be virtually impossible for her to bypass her media expertise as a tool of optimisation, and rightfully so. She imparted her professional experience in order to create a cultural hub in Meja wherein people from her former work life would be invited to collaborated with the local populace in order to create mutual opportunities of collaboration. To begin with, Vijayeta Kumar, one of Priyamvada’s director friends, shot a short film titled Blouse in Meja. “Some villagers acted in it and others worked as local crew, and this not only gave them an earning opportunity, it also put them on an international platform as this film went on to win the Best Short Film at NYIFF, got screened at other international festivals, and even saw a theatrical release at PVR Cinemas. I have also facilitated the participation of some talented kids from this region in reality shows”, Priyamvada elaborates.
Her courageous vision and relentless efforts vis-a-vis community development in her ancestral village earned Priyamvada the prestigious ‘Advantage Woman Awards’ by ICICI and the ‘Veer Durga Das Smriti Samiti award’ in association with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust. Alongside her communitarian endeavours in Meja, Priyamvada continues to work on television and other media projects on a freelance basis.
PORTRAITS FOR POSTERITY: AN INTIMATE LOOK AT INDIA’S MAHARANIS
The book showcases the portrait photography of the royal women of India which functions as socio-historical documents and notes to enquire into gender debates, intricate connection between Indian royal families and colonialism and one’s conceptualisation of the past.
As the world gets set to applaud women of grit and perseverance, The Sunday Guardian applauds royal women from the past who are featured in the book Maharanis: Women of Royal India, a best-seller by Mapin. In this book are featured a century of photographs curated by K.G. Pramod Kumar, a much-respected museum curator and history aficionado. Here are some of our favourites from the book.
Nawab Shah Jahan Begum
The book, ‘Maharanis’
Maharani Kanari Kumari of Kapurthala
Kusum Kunwarba of Rajpipla
In the past, tales of princely India have mostly involved the figure of the Maharaja. However, through his book, K.G. Pramod Kumar attempts to explore the exquisite women of royal India. The book showcases the royal portrait photography of the Maharanis of India which function as socio-historical documents and notes to enquire into gender debates, intricate connection between Indian royal families and colonialism and one’s conceptualisation of the past.
One of the earliest photographs of the royal women of India is that of Nawab Shah Jahan Begum of Bhopal by Bourne and Shepherd Studios (Museum of Art and Photography). She was the third Begum of Bhopal and was considered one of the most enlightened female rulers.
Some of the photographs also showed the transformation of these royal women from their traditional look to a more modern look, wearing hunting safari or riding clothes and posing with their kills. This look has been adorned by Maharani Tara Devi of Jammu and Kashmir, in a photograph taken by Mahatta and Co. Srinagar (Museum of Art and Photography).
With the advent of Western influence, Indian royal women began to wear Western or European clothes more often. This projection of Western attitudes can be seen in the photograph of Maharani Rani Kanari of Kapurthala taken by Sir John Benjamin Stone (Museum of Art and Photography).
Photographs were also famous for capturing jewellery that were purchased prominently by Maharajas and Maharanis of India who were interested in the works of European jewellers. In a photograph taken by Vandyk Studios, London (Museum of Art and Photography), Maharani Yashoda Devi of Patiala is seen wearing a beautiful pearl necklace.
In the 20th century, formal photographs were taken in studios that were embellished with backdrops and props. These studios had improved lighting techniques and strategically placed shadows. Wilson Studios, Bombay (Museum of Art and Photography), captured such a photograph of Maharani Kusum Kunwarba of Rajpipla.
Mohena Singh and her incredible flight to stardom
A little girl from the erstwhile kingdom of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh grew up believing that no dream was too big for her to achieve. From the very beginning, she had her heart set on performing arts such as dancing and acting, but held reservations vis-à-vis its acceptance within her community, where dancing and acting were watched and much-appreciated, but never conducted by oneself.
However, the oft-related stereotypes and hurdles attached to the art and career of performing arts were soon diminished by the enormous support that the little girl’s mother bestowed upon her. Gradually over the years, she developed wings and began to fly. Within the infinite pulse of Mumbai, she found her feet as a performer and continued to persevere her journey as an entertainer until her talent landed her flight upon the sets of Dance India Dance. Being in front of the television and a million eyes did little to dampen the first timer’s spirit. Instead, she glided her way into every successive round and ended up being a finalist of the show. This is how Mohena Kumari Singh made her scintillating entry into tinsel town and her flight only continues to soar higher.
Mohena’s mettle as a dancer and actor began to melt the pre-conceived notions that her family held vis-a-vis this field of expertise. She assisted the renowned choreographer Remo D’Souza on the sets of the famous dance show Jhalak Dikhla Ja for three entire seasons and also starred amongst the lead characters in Dil Dosti Dance, one of the most loved fiction dance dramas on Star Plus. At present, Mohena can be seen on the popular soap opera, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, and is savouring every moment enacting Kirti Bansal.
Breaking through into the competitive entertainment industry for Mohena was accompanied by the additional challenge of doing within long-held traditionalism by ancestral families such as hers. “Even though I had my family support I did know at the back of my head that girls from our community, especially Princesses have never gone out there and done unconventional jobs like mine. So, I knew I was going to get a lot of flak for it too. Which I did. But the support I have received is so much more than the flak,” says the star-eyed celebrity. The continuous and overwhelming support that she receives daily from her fanbase keeps her going. She is also aware of having made a bold career choice that is likely to open up aspirational avenues for other Rajput girls.
Maintaining herself as a traditionalist in many ways, Mohena emphasises on the vitality of community-based thinking and individualism in order to evolve. “The thinking (of the Rajput community) has to evolve. It is important for an individual to go through struggles in life to shape themselves as better human beings. I believe experience is everything. Until and unless you don’t get out into the real world, you’ll never know who you really are and what you want from your life. Parents should give their kids the right values and ultimately let them choose their own paths.” she elaborates. In many ways, Mohena’s approach tactfully balances traditional values with her professional pursuit as an individual and successfully portrays a proud retention of her family heritage while creating her own legacy in India’s film industry.
When asked about her ultimate aims and goals, Mohena expresses a highly spiritual insight: “My aim is to be happy. My goal is to go back home after a long day at shoot, satisfied with what I have done. It is so important to do what makes you happy. That way you can be at peace with yourself and can actually make others in your life happy too.”
In the long run, apart from working in the entertainment industry, Mohena envisions heading homewards and taking up political responsibilities alongside her brother towards social causes such as women empowerment and underprivileged children. Along her exciting journey as an aspirational individual and a Rajput scioness, Mohena mentions the likelihood of finding her Prince Charming in a suitor who co-pilots her exciting flight with her.
“He should be one who finds pride in my achievements, instead of chopping off my wings”, says Mohena while finishing off, with a wink that is as charming as she is.
Creating a storm with stunning shawls
A resident of the quiet city of Kota, the elegant shawl creator, Madhulika Hada is a Hada Rajput who is silently creating a storm with her stunningly beautiful shawls in cashmere. Each piece is a canvas for her signature style of stunning hand embroidery and bead work. One of the most acclaimed of Chauhan branches, the Hadas belong to the Agnikula and two of the prominent Rajasthan states of Bundi and Kota were ruled by them. Madhulika, married into a small noble family of Koela, is a woman of immense creativity with a deep understanding of the craft of embellishment.
She is supported unanimously by both her children, daughter Aishwarya Singh, married to Aditya Singh, son of former Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, Raman Singh. When not posing as ex-CM’s daughter-in-law, pursuing his many charity programmes, Aishwarya happily poses in her mother’s shawls. As her filmmaker son who, besides shooting for Yash Raj Films also shoots his elegant mother and beautiful wife draped in these heirloom quality shawls.
Madhulika’s work on cashmere is nothing short of museum quality. She looks at pictures of past portraitures and selects motifs typical of Kashmiri embroidery form. The paisley, the jaal, the bootas and the medallion designs. She then reproduces them using a variety of decorative embroidery techniques, including zardozi, aari, tepchi, resham do taar, etc. She enhances her cashmere in vibrant hues using gold threads, pearls, beads and resham. Each piece a stunner and a veritable hand me down for generations to come.
“While the designs come to me as visions from a collective memory, the design bastions belong to the rich history of hand crafting that all of us Rajputs have had the good luck to experience up close,” she says.
THE TIMELESS TEXTILE TALES OF AMBIKA RAJE GHORPADE
Ambika Raje Ghorpade of Sandur is weaving stories of her treasure trove of old textiles and royal couture and sharing it with the world with the help of a very modern tool—Instagram.
The royals and their love for costumes is no hidden secret. In older times, a fleet of weavers, beaders, embroiderers and seamstresses sat within palace karkhanas to create something bespoke for the queen. There was a special impetus for making saris that the royal ladies would wear with much elan. Each style carried forth a story of rare reverence, be it the gossamer chiffons embroidered with pure gold threads and semi precious stones, the soft Chanderis worn with pure zari borders, a patent of the Maratha women, or the chantilly lace that would get shipped directly from the ateliers of France to the palaces of India.
Shrimant Kartiteya Raje and Smrimati Ambikaraje Ghorpade Sandur.Ambika in an adaptation of the dupatta.
Shrimant Murari Rao Yashwant Rao Ghorpade in original dupatta.
Late Rajmata Vasundhara Raje Ghorpade Sandur.
R.K. Sushila Kumari of Jasdan.
Cut to modern times. As couture claimed centre stage, these master craftsmen working on commision for princely families were forgotten. Their masterpieces lay packed in the trunks of the erstwhile royals and in the memoirs of past queens, where many stories of rare textiles and costumes could be found.
Many such tales have been lying within the personal wardrobe of the very elegant and beautiful Ambika Raje Ghorpade of Sandur. The wife of Kartikeya Raje, a successful entrepreneur, a great food historian and passionate chef, she had the privilege of calling two spectacular women her mother: Sushila Kumari, the Princess of Jasdan, who was her biological mother, and the late Rajmata Vasundhara Raje Ghorpade, who was her mother-in-law. From both of them she inherited not just amazing tales about textiles but also an inborn grace to do justice to anything she wore.
Born to a Maratha IAS officer Hirojirao Ramarao Patankar and Raj Kumari Sushila Kumari of Jasdan, Ambika got married into the Sandur princely state in Karnataka. A popular Maratha state with a strong political legacy, Sandur was also the region where a unique form of Mysore silk was woven. Add to that the fact that Ambika’s mother-in-law, the stunning beauty, was a princess from Baroda. Together they created such a trunk of tales to unfurl that Ambika decided to share them with the next generation on a forum that they understand: Instagram. “It would help my two daughters trace my collection better,” she jokes.
There are sari influencers galore today, but this lady says things from the heart, tracing many rare, restored pieces to the women of Baroda, Jasdan and Sandur. From a Parsi gara, lovingly restored from an old piece of chiffon, to her mother-in-law’s bridal dupatta which she added to a sari, her tales are enchanting. Every word uttered by her catches the fancy of her organically grown followers – most of them second-generation nobles and royals – including her daughters, the younger one, Anushka Ghorpade, who is a baker, and the elder daughter, Krutika, who is a mother to a little girl and the wife of Akshay Bhansali, son of politician Yashodhara Raje Scindia and Siddharth Bhansali.
Two of my favourite stories from her stunning page are the one where she pays an ode to her mother’s chiffons, by posing in a stunning print from BBG royals herself, and the other where she strikes a perfect picture with her amazing spouse, wearing a sari, hand-tucked with a pure gold border, which belonged to her mother-in-law’s bridal ensemble.
The quotes which follow them are just as endearing. “When you are looking at your mother, you are looking at the purest love you will ever know. My insta page is dedicated to my mom, her love for saris and her in-depth knowledge of the textiles! Listening to her stories as I grew up, while shopping and travelling, is where my love for textiles started…Mom at 17 in a French floral chiffon and me in a @bbg_royal champagne rose chiffon,” reads the first one.
The second says, “Years back my mother-in-law was rummaging through her trunk and she pulled out her wedding dupatta. As she unfolded it, she realised it was in tatters. It was a real gold tissue dupatta with a solid huge gold border all around. The tissue was in tatters but the border could be restored. Those days they wore very long dupattas over the sari ,so it was easy to get a complete sari border from the dupatta! And I did !…My in-laws on their wedding day and me in a pink chiffon with the solid real gold border, which I restored from my mother in law’s wedding dupatta! Old is gold — literally!”
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