IT WAS AYODHYA’S HONOUR THAT IT HOSTED BEGUM AKHTAR’S ART: YATINDRA MISHRA - The Daily Guardian
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IT WAS AYODHYA’S HONOUR THAT IT HOSTED BEGUM AKHTAR’S ART: YATINDRA MISHRA

A celebrated Hindi poet, music and cinema scholar and also the prince of Ayodhya, Yatindra Mishra opened up about the recent translation of his book, ‘Akhtari: Soz Aur Saaz Ka Afsana’, based on the life, times, and music of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi aka Begum Akhtar, and more.

Anshu Khanna

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A celebrated Hindi Poet, Music and Cinema Scholar and also the prince of Ayodhya, Yatindra Mishra has four collections of poetry to his credit —Yada-Kada, Ayodhya Tatha Anya Kavitayein, Dyorhi Par Aalaap, and Vibhas. He has several well-received books on Indian Classical Music and cinema including Girija (Based on Thumri Singer Girija Devi), Devpriya (Dialogue with danseuse Sonal Mansingh), Sur Ki Baradari (Life & Times of Shehnai Maestro Bismillah Khan) and Akhtari: Soz Aur Saaz Ka Afsana (Based on Thumri and Ghazal Queen Begum Akhtar). He is the editor of a cultural gazetteer of Faizabad titled Shahernama Faizabad. His book Lata: Sur-Gatha (Musical Journey of legendary playback singer Lata Mangeshkar) won seven awards. He is currently working on a book on eminent lyricist, poet, and filmmaker Gulzar Saheb. An understated cultural aficionado, his works are linked to his inherited legacy in the richest, most seamless manner. Yatindra spoke to The Daily Guardian about the English translation of his book Akhtari the Life and Music of Begum Akhtar based on the life, times, and music of Akhtari Bai Faizabadi and more.

Yatindra Mishra

EXCERPTS:

Q. Can you share the famed legacy of music in Ayodhya?

A. My city Ayodhya is a Vaishnav city where there is a tradition of Madhuropasana or Ram Rasik Bhakti Tradition. Here the deity is revered by the devotee through music channelised by love and devotion. The pioneer of this tradition was the ancient saint Sant Kripa Niwas. 

Ayodhya is a complex blend of Ram bhakti, Nirguna Upasana, folk culture of Awadh, and snippets of musical heritage from the Ram Bhakti traditions of the South. It is visible in the path of Alwandar Strota where Shri and Narayan are worshipped. The city boasts of Ramleela Performances in fields (Maidani Ramleela) that bear the traces of Parsi theatre along with Ram Katha Gayan. Ram Katha Gayan is a major part of the theatrical musical legacy of the land. The winds carry hymns sung in temples all over the city, composed on a common beat and rhythm pattern following in the tradition of Saam Gaan from the Saam Veda. Saam Veda is the Veda is among the four holy books that deal with music. Over time, the city has also been touched with modernity and musical instruments like harmonium, tabla, dholak, manjeera and the live musicians have been replaced with records and tapes. It is common to hear Mukesh’s Ramcharitmanas, Hanuman Chalisa by Anoop Jalota and Hari Om Sharan being played in the temples. 

There have been many famed personalities who have graced the musical landscape of Ayodhya. Begum Akhtar, Swami Pagaldas, and a disciple of the renowned Mridangacharya Swami Bhagwan Das are noteworthy. Pandit Rasik Vihari Mishra ‘Kallu Maharaj’ and Bhagwat Kishor ‘Vyakul’ were great artists dedicated to their craft who did not get the fame they deserved. Pandit Dayashankar Mishra pioneered a rendition in bhajan and khayal gayaki  and established a new Gharana. 

My lovely grandmother Late Rajkumari Vimla Devi introduced me to the nuances of music. She was a trained semi-classical and folk singer and whose art remained unrecognised. She was trained under the tutelage of Pandit Ram Padarath Ji and also received training from Akhtar. Bhajans sang in her voice along with traditional folk songs in authentic Awadhi dialect like sohar, nakta, banna, and hori make up my fond memories. Ayodhya has a current of melancholy which is perceptible in the lilting Ramdhun that resonates in the city.

Q. Your book Akhtari relives the era of Begum Akhtar’s residency in Ayodhya. Explain the legacy?

A. The period from 1935 to 1945 was when Akhtar was making appearances in darbar and holding Khadi Mehfils (singing, dancing, and performing while standing). She performed in Ayodhya Darbar especially on Dussehra and Holi. This fact is further established by the works of historian Salim Kidwai that this was the time when she was holding Khadi Mehfils mainly in the Awadh Province. She mesmerised the elites and the common man alike with her aura as a diva. A white Mercedez Benz from Ayodhya Raj, under the then king Maharaja Jagdambika Pratap Narayan Singh, went to fetch her, bearing the number plate Ayodhya-126. By all records, it was her favourite and special attention was paid that this car remained in her attendance. Her visits and performances made up for interesting anecdotes that have been passed down to us from generations. Talking to my elders, I came to know that there was a fight amongst drivers as to who would go to receive her. Apart from her stardom, it was also because of her magnanimity as the driver in attendance got lavish tips, inams, and ikrams.

She sang a multitude of songs including sadra, mubarakbadi, thumri, kajri ghazal, holi and phaag ki thumri. My grandma mentioned her rendition of thumri Chala ho pardesiya naina lagaye, and  Holi ki thumri Daff kahe ko bajaye main toh aawat rahi  were something magical. She was fortunate enough to learn these from the great doyen. At that time, Akhtar graced the Royal Darbars of Kashmir, Reewa, Baroda, Darbhanga, and Rampur. The era dictated that the singer performing in the Baroda Darbar of Maharaj Sayajirao Rao Gaekwad III was listed as an A grade artist. It was a stamp of endorsement for any Bai ji or classical singer and in those times Akhtar was a prominent presence there. In these circumstances, it was an honour for Ayodhya that it hosted and revelled in her art. 

Q. Which is your favourite composition from her repertoire?

A. Picking a favourite amongst her songs is akin to say that Hazaron khwahishein aisi ki har khwahish par dum nikale. Each song, composition, and rendition pierces my heart in a new way. But if I have to pick a favourite I would go with Koyaliya mat kar pukaar, Nihure-nihure buhare, Jabse shaam sidhare, Kaun tarah se tum khelat holi, and Mori bali si umariya gaune ki aayi ratiya. Kaifi Azmi’s Aisa to zindagi mein kisi ki khalal pade, Sudarshan Fakir’s Kuchh toh duniya ki Inayaat ne dil tod diya, and Ahmad Jalili’s Ab chhalakate hue sagar nhin dekhe jate are perennial favourites in ghazal. The list will go on as the magic of the Akhtar unravels.

Q. What does music mean to you?

A. As a writer and poet, music is something inexplicable. It would be better if I said that what is inexplicable can only be explained through music. It touches on nuances, sentiments and meaning of the human life which were hitherto untouched. It calls out for something divine, the pukaar elevates the human experience. For me, music is suspended between being a solace and being sublime. I believe that if God exists, He can only be reached through music. It is not without reason that the last step of Navdha Bhakti culminates in musical offerings to God.

Q. How do you see the famed Ganga Jamuni culture of Avadh thriving in Ayodhya?

A. These are not just the cultural ethos of Ayodhya but the whole of India. The tradition of Nauha singing on Muharram is carried on with the same reverence and sanctity that is given to any other holy practice, Kabir the weaver is sung by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Meerabai’s padas by Ustad Faiyyaz Khan. I was captivated by Ustad Bismillah Khan’s spirit for his practice of playing sehra for Baba Vishwanath. Ayodhya is a living, breathing specimen of the same ethos. Muslims make up a major part of the Ram Leela performances in Mumtaz Nagar, a part of Ayodhya. We find soulful music emanating from the dargah of Hazrat Sheesh Paigambar and Argada Masjid in Ayodhya. Music talks of the shared divine, the shared bliss of harmony and melody. Various sects and regions too find their presence in Ayodhya with temples like Kale Raam Mandir. They carry on their respective musical and artistic traditions. 

Q. Did you relive a fine moment while penning the book on Lataji?

A. It was a journey in all sense. I understood that however cliché it must be, the journey is more rewarding than the destination. There were countless moments, some moments of pure awe where I stood star-struck, that I am talking to a legend who defined generations. I find myself extremely fortunate that in the process of writing this book I embarked on a journey to understand the musical and cultural topography of the Indian subcontinent. This quest to understand the music of the Indian diaspora has been incredibly enriching.

Q. Who are your favourite voices from Avadh? Share the legacy of words and verses of Avadh.

A. The most endearing ones are Arjoo Lakhnvi, Majaz Lakhnavi, Meer Anis — the king of Mersia and Khwaja Haider, Ali ‘Aatish’ Pandit Brijnarayn ‘Chakbast’ and Mohd. Rafi Sauda. The pioneers who have lifted Hindi poetry on their shoulders are Kunwar Narain, Raghuveer Sahay, Jaishankar Prasad, and Mahadevi Verma. Some eminent lyricists who always win over my heart are Shakeel Badayuni, Jaan Nisar Akhtar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Kaifi Azmi. 

Q. What are your views on the he fable of the Ayodhya Princess travelling to Korea and the link enjoyed between the two families?

A. Around two decades ago historians from Korea visited my home Rajsadan to meet my father Bimlendra Mohan Pratap Mishra. They had documents and historical and archaeological proofs stating that the clan mother of the Garak Clan was the princess of Ayodhya. Around 2,000 years ago, the king of Ayodhya had a dream that if he set his daughter to sail in a particular direction, it would result in her fortune. So he did as the divination dictated and Princess Suriratna set sail. At the same time, the King Kim Suro of Korea got a dream that to seek his fortune he should go in the direction in which the Princess was sailing. And on the consultation of his royal astrologers, he revered Princess Suriratna as an auspicious blessing and the two of them were married in a holy union. Thus she came to be known as Queen Huh. They had 10 sons, eight of whom became bhikkhus (Buddhist monks), one founded Japan, and one founded Korea. 

The Koreans pay homage to their Clan Mother, wherein the Garak Clan is the largest clan of Korea and has given the nation many leaders and visionaries. It was my father who pioneered the relation between Ayodhya and Korea. He went to great lengths to seal and honour the relationship at personal cost and effort. 

The Korean delegation comes every year for the past 20 years where they are hosted by the Royal Family of Ayodhya at their residence. There is an exchange of two cultures and their respective arts. It is a beautiful ceremony that could sustain itself because of my father’s efforts.

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Royally Speaking

ANSHU KHANNA ON WHAT DROVE ROYAL FABLES INTO SUCCESSFUL REALITY

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As a special tribute to one of our key patrons, Rajputana Collective discloses the story of Royal Fables as told by its founding lady herself. With over nine bedazzling seasons, various international chapters, a retail outlet, and most recently, her comeback post the pandemic, Anshu Khanna recounts her special journey with Royal Fables. Their humble beginnings and the spirit that they carry forth through the narrative of every fable and every fairy retail.

It is my firm belief that one, real craft owes its lineage to the patronage of the royals; and two, that there is no Indian luxe story bigger than that of the royal studios wherein we nurtured a host of Indian arts and crafts. A significant source of the indigenous design movement, this revivalist effort in its grain of resilience, in a nutshell, counts as my royal fable. 

It all began when, as a journalist, I kept meeting so many young, blue-blooded design and art aficionados, each of whom had an impeccable story to tell. They were elegantly straddling the two worlds. One, of being born into democratic India, privy to the same education as the others, bearing the same opportunities as the rest. And the other, of being scions of history and legacy that still existed within their havelis, forts, and palaces. Monuments that withstood seventy long years of independence, to continue serving home to them. 

My formal tryst began when I met a young and very handsome prince from Jodhpur: Raghavendra Rathore who, returned from Parsons and quietly took his place in the heart of the Indian couture movement. Then, there was the young and beautiful princess Diya Kumari of Jaipur who, single-handedly revived the 22 karkhanas that thrived within Jaipur’s City Palace. There were also the quiet Mandawa girls who revived their looms in Mansa with their mother. I met them at a textile fair and was bemused by how they stood apart, their elegant frame draped in fine chiffon. Indicating their royal roots like their attire was their work, which was steeped in the Rajput dress sense: divine motifs of the suraj (sun), the chand (moon) and the Mughal bootas in their silk, the ombre dye in their chiffons. In similar conjunction stood the elegant, young princess of Kishangarh, Vaishnavi, whose art redefined the indigenous art scene in being resplendent with cows, alta on their feet, lotuses, abloom in the pond, and the ever-intense Shrinathji. Whatever she created through her local artists had such an original freshness to it. Similarly, the bold strokes of Alkarani from the Pratapgarh stood miles apart in her hand-painted saris.

It was stories of endearing stories of people such as these, along with their diverse arts that I decided to tell to the world through Royal Fables. An increasingly competitive and commercialising world had left one thing crystal clear, that I could have not taken these art products into the market yet, for the royal studios lacked consistency as well as a market sense in terms of a coherent business outlook. What unitedly led them was the urgent need to keep their art legacies alive, have their looms spinning and ensure their art thrived as the master kaarigar (craftsman) passed on his craft to an equally willing generation of youngsters. It was during this very phase that DLF Emporio asked me to think of a unique bazaar concept. A voice inside me said, “let’s tell a Royal Fable!” And just like that, as if it were an ordain from above, we were born. 

Royal Fables when simply defined is a chic, high-nosed royal exposition that not just presents the creative oeuvres of palace studios, but also presents the culture and cuisine of royal India. We were the first to host a royal banquet in the presence of the Jung family at Falaknuma, way back in 2010. Later years saw us showcasing cuisines of Sailana, Rampur, Kishangarh, Kangra, Limbdi, Bhainsrorgarh, and Kotwara. We assisted the music aficionado Maharaja Brajraj Singhji of Kishangarh to revive some of the rarest live recordings of women like Lalita bai and Gauhar Jaan, whose were voices of the pre gramophone era. But we did all this as quietly as the royals, sans blowing our own trumpet or singing from the cliffs of our USPs…. Maybe there was a Singh lurking in our hearts and soul? 

‘So what is this Punjabi doing amongst Rajputs?!’ is a question thrown at me much too often with many suggesting that I might have a ‘Singh’ surname in my lineage. Or that my wearing pearls have to be because I think, deep down, like a Baisa! Many even subtly suggest through a whisper campaign, that like the myriad others, I may be a wannabe royal hanger-on, rubbing off their persona onto mine!

 Alas, none of this is true. And I am sorry to have burst many bubbles as I declare that nine seasons and ten years later I remain true to myself: A proud Punjaban who is rooted to the ground. In this sense, I agree when many laugh and suggest that: It took a Punjabi to bring so many royal homes together, taking the stiffness away from their narrative. Two Punjabis actually as I could not have got the royals on our side without the effervescent support of my 2IC Akshat Kapoor.

Many drove my concept of Royal Fables into the successful reality that it presently is. We seem to have a divine connection with the DLF group: both Royal Fables and now Palace Karkhanas owe their patronage to them. My friend and soul sister, Sadhana Baijal took Royal Fables to the acclaim it deserves in Mumbai. My daughters, Akshiena and Akanksha, gave it the design parlance and designed the logo. Varun, my husband and backbone, simply takes the intricacies under his wing each time and of course the team itself- Deepali, Maanvi, and Kamakshi, who are such a lovely lot of girls.

Now, nine seasons old with chapters in Thailand, Morocco, Canada, and the US achieved and a permanent label to sell under Palace Karkhanas, we still struggle to stand on our two feet. Each season the struggle begins: where to find funds to showcase the splendour in its real glory; who to associate with; and how to make those damn ends met. But we go on, telling that fable and reliving the past. Because what is life without a fairy tale and the world without its princes and princesses?

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Royally Speaking

DISCOVERING UNHEARD OF FABLES AT ROYAL FABLES

Priyamvada Singh

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Exploring the illustrious legacy of princely India, Royal Fables – the brainchild of journalist, publicist, and craft crusader Anshu Khanna – has been passionately promoting traditional workmanship burgeoning inside the royal and noble residences of the Indian sub-continent for more than a decade. As the country’s much-loved heritage exposition culminated its ‘The Comeback Show’ this week at Bikaner House, New Delhi, I discovered some fascinating unheard fables about the participating royals. 

Art from Bikaner Royaal
Namrata Singh
Namrata Singh Jewellery
Shivraj Singh Limdi with his wife Madhushri
Tripti Singh at her Ghoomar event
Rohini Singh wearing Just Chiffons
Princess Mahima Kumari & Sannjna Kumari of Bikaner

HOW RANI JAYKIRTI SINGH OF BARIA COINS NAMES FOR HER ENSEMBLE COLLECTIONS

Block prints have always held a place of pride in the Indian textile history. Jaipur’s much-revered craft has been perfected over centuries but what distinguishes Jaykirti Singh’s work is that she sprinkles a dash of contemporary seasoning to the traditional art form, making it relevant in today’s times.

Jaykirti believes that genuine bonds with friends and family strengthen one’s connection to life. They tie us to the past. They also help us envision a road to the future. They become the key to our sanity during times of chaos. They also inspire creativity. As an ode to these strong bonds in her life, she coins the names of her ensemble collections after people who hold a special place in her heart. Whether it’s her close friend Rani Sarbani Shah of Jaisalmer, her earliest patrons like Rani Maya Kumari of Ajairajpura, and Kanwarani Sneh Kumari of Jamnagar, members of her present staff Harshita and Kiran or her gorgeous daughter Mriganka Kumari; Jaykirti has showered her gratitude to each one of them by naming her collections after them over the years. For someone like Jaykirti who has always held such an understated demeanour, this grand gesture of eternalising her bonds of love is truly reflective of her benevolence —an unheard fable worth being told.

TRIPTI SINGH SHARES A MOMENT OF HILARITY FROM HER GHOOMAR EVENT

Despite living away from her home state for almost two decades, Tripti Singh has beautifully nurtured its culture with her unique event franchise ‘Ghoomar – Twirl With Grace’, allowing Rajasthani traditions to blossom in the cosmopolitan landscape of Gurugram. Facilitating socio-cultural initiatives in a city whose cultural ethos still remains largely disconnected from its past is no ordinary feat, but Tripti is no ordinary woman. 

Talking to her is like unveiling a treasure trove of stories, but what instantly comes to mind is the incident from her event in 2018 where the highlight was a sword dance by two supremely talented artists. On the day of the performance, while everyone was eagerly awaiting this performance, Tripti was posed with a big problem. The hotel security refused to allow the swords inside because weapons were not allowed on the premises. It took her a tense hour of pleading, cajoling, showing video clips and finally signing a release to convince the security in-charge that the swords were just a dance accessory and the girls had no intention of chopping each other’s limbs off.

HOW NAMRATA SINGH DODGED A VERY PECULIAR WORK CRISIS

Growing up in the pink city amidst a family of culture connoisseurs, Namrata Singh fell in love with Jaipur’s glorious legacy of skilled art forms at a very young age. A first-generation jewellery designer, she embraced the handcrafted brilliance of her home town very organically and evolved her unique design sensibility over the last few years.   

Namrata’s unheard fable is about how she evaded a tricky situation at work with her presence of mind. At one time, she received multiple orders for a particular pair of earrings. Three women were keen on wearing the same design on different occasions at different locations. Unfortunately, only one pair was available at that time. Namrata came up with a brilliant plan and requested all three clients to wear it for their respective functions and return it until their pair was ready. Luckily, they all agreed to share that highly sought-after piece, and Namrata managed to rotate it between a trio who didn’t even know each other! A few days later, she delivered each client’s order along with a note of appreciation. 

WHY ROHINI SINGH’S WARDROBE DOESN’T HAVE ENOUGH SAREES BY JUST CHIFFONS

Self-taught design revivalists Rani Dipti Singh of Kachhi Baroda and her daughter Rohini entered the realm of artisanal handiwork more than a decade ago while curating Rohini’s wedding trousseau, as they found themselves getting an array of customised chiffon sarees made due to a dearth of available options in the market. The sarees made by them piqued the interest of many connoisseurs in their home town Indore, and they were soon flooded with queries. Their initial clients mostly belonged to Dipti Singh’s social circle, who convinced her to pass on the pieces she had meticulously handcrafted for Rohini saying she had plenty of time to get new ones made for her daughter. 

As the sarees worn by friends and family began to do rounds of various gatherings, more orders poured in, creating a perfect opportunity for the duo to delve into the marvels of vintage design. Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams one never even knew one had. When Rani Dipti Singh had lovingly recreated past regalia for her daughter, little did she know that the two of them would evolve as a brand to reckon with, in crafting the fabled six-yard story? Rohini shares how her wardrobe still does not have enough sarees by their brand Just Chiffons as whenever they create a piece for themselves, it lands up being loved so much by the clients that it gets purchased instantly. 

HOW A FOOD BUFF LIKE SHIVRAJ SINGH LIMDI EVOLVED INTO A MUCH-ADMIRED ROYAL CHEF

Talking about Shivraj Singh Limdi and his delectable culinary skills come very naturally to me because the words flow out of my mind as effortlessly as his succulent ‘chakki ke sule’ slip into my mouth! While I’m familiar with the cuisine of Limdi due to a close family connection, the sophistication of taste and gastronomic excellence that Shivraj brings to Limdi cuisine is much beyond a family’s kitchen secret. His wealth of information about royal cuisine and history is impeccable. What he serves is not just a family heirloom in the form of a traditional recipe; it largely comes from a place of passion from his purity of love for food. 

How a connoisseur of food evolved into an admired chef is what forms his unheard fable. A few years ago, Shivraj was dining at a swanky Indian restaurant of a five-star hotel. He ordered their much-acclaimed kebab platter but was very disappointed with the preparation. As someone who is passionate about food, he requested to have a word with the chef. While he was indulged in a tete-a-tete with the chef about the nitty-gritties of what he thought wasn’t right with the preparation, the hotel manager approached him. In the heat of the moment, the manager told Shivraj that if he was so well versed with the dynamics of this cuisine, why not give them a peek into his culinary talent. Shivraj invited them the home the following week, and as luck would have it, bowled them over with his extravagant spread of delectable cuisine. The hotel management ate to their heart’s content that evening and soon invited Shivraj to host his first-ever food festival at the very same restaurant where it all began. 

HOW THE VENUE OF ‘THE COMEBACK SHOW’ HOLDS SPECIAL SIGNIFICANCE FOR PRINCESS MAHIMA KUMARI

Founded by the visionary ruler HH Maharaja Ganga Singh Ji, and having welcomed the veritable who’s who in the past, Bikaner House, one of Delhi’s most gracious cultural venues hosted the much-awaited Royal Fables comeback show this week. While this was an exciting time for all connoisseurs of luxury retail, it held special significance for the scions of the Bikaner family: Princess Mahima Kumari and her daughter Sannjna Kumari, who marked their debut in the country’s much-loved heritage exposition this year with their venture ‘Bikaner Royaal’. 

Making an earnest effort towards carving a monolithic identity of their roots, they presented an eclectic ensemble of objets d’art from their native lands like ‘ittars’, Usta art and other heritage memorabilia. Having watched her grandmother Rajmata Sushila Kumari and mother Maharani Padma Kumari using exotic ‘ittars’ throughout their lives, it was a natural progression for Mahima to immerse into the realm of ethereal fragrances. Similarly, while growing up in Bikaner, she walked amidst exquisite wall frescoes showcasing Usta art at her family’s many regal residences like the Anup Mahal, Karan Mahal, and Badal Mahal at the Junagadh Fort. Usta art is known to have flourished the most under the royal patronage of HH Maharaja Rai Singh Ji several years ago. Today, life comes full circle for this family as the same craftsmanship receives patronage from his successors through ‘Bikaner Royaal’ at the former home of the Bikaner family. 

The evolution of Royal Fables is the story of regal patronage to craftsmanship, the revival of vintage artistry, and the resurgence of ageing craftsmen, who have been creating eternal finesse in the palace karkhaanas for centuries. The royals have never closed their doors on talent. In this post-pandemic era, the artisans associated with palace studios seek our support more than ever. The need of the hour is to appreciate their stories and encourage their skill-sets. Therefore, Anshu Khanna’s brilliant and resilient revivalist effort in this direction deserves all our love and applause. 

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Royally Speaking

QUEEN OF THE COURT: BHUVNESHWARI KUMARI’S SQUASH LEGACY

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Fourteen years ago, on a sultry summer afternoon in Ajmer, the Mayo Girls’ squash team was summoned to meet their new coach, who was to commence their first training camp together. Five minutes before the scheduled time, a lime-yellow Zen hatchback appeared around the corner and from it emerged a reasonably tall and medium built squash veteran, jovial and laid-back as she remains upto this day. As the youngest member of the team, my 11 year-old self first noticed her striking pair of multicoloured Asics joggers, which I would later come to associate as a quirk belonging solely to my beloved coach. For the remaining seven years that I spent in school, not only was my coach a guiding force in my sporting pursuit as a varsity athlete but also a life coach and a dear friend. Now, after a decade and a half of knowing her, it gives me immense pleasure to showcase the extraordinary legacy of the extraordinary sportsperson that she has been. Without further due, Rajputana Collective proudly dedicates its sports section to none other than the iconic queen of the squash courts, Bhuvneshwari Kumari (affectionately known to most as Candy and Ma’am Candy to her students), as she shares her introduction to the sport, her ascending journey and finally, her insight into the future of squash in India.

Bearing the Commonwealth Torch back in 2010

Bhuvneshwari Kumari receiving her Arjuna Award(Down) and Bhuvneshwari Kumari(Up)

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Contrary to our standard custom of meeting at the Delhi Gymkhana to knock back a hearty Chinese meal, I met Ma’am Candy for a scheduled interview as a preliminary protocol for this article outside the Willing squash courts on a late winter evening. It seemed peculiar to me that despite knowing her for the better part of my life, there were so many experiences and accounts so intimate to her sporting career that I was listening to for the very first time. Pitching in a slightly linear pace to my interview, I began by asking Ma’am Candy the most basic starting question, “how did your journey as a squash player begin?” With an almost childlike light in her eyes, she perched up on her chair, crossing her arms on the garden table and with a deep breath, transposed me back to her teenage years.

“To be honest, my legendary affair with squash began with a mere fluke. I was a sixteen year-old when the women’s nationals happened to be taking place in Delhi. The match draw enlisted seven participants and was short of just one player in order to form an even roster. Since my father happened to be a close associate of the federation, he offered to help by pleading me to pitch in as the eighth player. I had been playing tennis in the national circuit in any case, and he convinced me that playing a match or two of squash wouldn’t be too difficult, since the two racquet games were quite similar. A thorough novice, I was worried about making a complete fool of myself at the squash nationals, to which my father resolved to arrange training sessions with the marker at these very courts at Delhi Gymkhana. He promised me that I’d just have to play squash for one day, for the sake of proceeding the women nationals’ draw forward; and that I could go back to playing tennis after that. After two weeks of training, I appeared at St. Stephen’s College to play my first match. To be honest, I was looking forward to having fun and didn’t think much of the result. But as luck would have it, I won my first match, defeated the country’s top seeded player in the semi-finals and entered the finals to play against my cousin Nandini, to whom I lost after a very close five-setter.”

After her lightening rise to squashing fame, the rookie reclused back to playing tennis.

In a year’s time, the women’s squash nationals were again waiting to take place. “My family and friends talked me into enrolling for a second time. They said that a one-time victory could be perceived as a fluke, so I should re-instate my victory as genuine by participating again. Hence, I put in a month’s practice this time and swept the winner’s title. The same story followed through the following year, when I was advised to top my newly-established talent with a hattrick victory. And so it was!” For these first three years, Ma’am Candy was only associated with the Indian squash circuit in terms of an annual appearance at the women’s national championship. Her formal training and career-building with squash commenced only after her third consecutive national title, when her exasperated tennis coach Dulaare complained of the game to have ruined her tennis skills and asked her to choose between the two. Deriving more accomplishment from squash, especially with the little effort that she had put into the game, she decided to kiss tennis goodbye. Supporting this decision of hers in retrospect, she adds, “I won’t lie to you by telling you that it was a particular aspect of the gaming technique that superseded tennis and drew me to it. It was the sheer feeling of winning that becomes addictive in any game. Once you start winning, you start loving the feeling. My story with squash was in pursuit of chasing the same, sweet feeling- of victory.” And hence, a new star had dawned in the Indian squash circuit, and would continue to dominate it for the next decade and a half.

During her active years in squash that spanned from 1976 to 1992, the squash legend has held an astonishing record of fifty-nine titles, out of which she has clenched the national title for sixteen consecutive years. The government of India felicitated her sporting achievements by presenting her the prestigious Arjuna award in 1982 and a Padma Shri in 2001. The K.K. Birla Foundation and the Limca Book of World Records have hailed her for holding the maximum number of national titles by a sportsperson in 1991 and 1992 respectively. Recollecting her days as a formidable player, Ma’am Candy elaborates, much to my amusement, “I even participated in the men’s events of a few men’s tournaments, including the Nationals where I did well by winning the first three rounds. Thereafter, I was not allowed to play on because the male contestants were getting complexed by losing to a woman. They were scared playing against me, but I enjoyed winning against them!”

After an unparalleled dominance of the squash courts for sixteen long years, Ma’am Candy sustained a severe bout of knee damage in 1992 that suspended her squash career. A knee replacement in her case meant a year-long gap, which was too prolonged if she were to make a meaningful return into the game. And hence, she formally retired from competitive squash but continued to participate as a World Squash Association (WSA) certified level 2 coach through various national and international squash championships, such as the Commonwealth, Asian and South Asian Games. She continues to serve as the secretary of the Squash Association of Delhi and is closely associated to the Squash Racquet Federation of India (SRFI).

When asked about what she considers to be the primary virtues of a successful squash player, Ma’am Candy emphasises on the basics that form her key strategy. Hard work, consistency, discipline and dedication are uncompromisable components of the game.

An undying adherence to one’s utmost potential, she supplements, is of crucial importance as well. She highlights how, even a five percent drop in performance could acutely amount to a loss. The precision and fitness required in order to keep up with the highly-demanding game has, in public opinion, sharply reduced the number of active years that the average human being spends playing squash. However, Ma’am Candy busts this myth by placing emphasis on the senior events allotted to players as old as sixty-five and above in the World Masters’ Series. She says that a player’s durability in the court has lesser to do with their age and more with their inner mindfulness vis-a-vis the extent of their personal limits of fitness and endurance. Erratic pursuers of the game who take up too much too soon without paying apt considerations to their health and fitness end up placing excessive load on their joints and cardiovascular system, which is when the trouble essentially begins, she explains.

Finally, Ma’am Candy accredits a thoroughly optimistic outlook vis-a-vis the future of India’s squash trends, stating the existence of optimal training standards within the country. “There isn’t much difference between many leading Indian squash players and world champions. The fact that India managed to win a Commonwealth gold, is in itself a statement that we are out there. Furthermore, the generation of new champions is made more accessible by the increasing number of public courts that have expanded squash from being an elitist game of the past to a more widely-available form of recreational as well as competitive sport. Kids nowadays are hungry to win and their commendable discipline makes it a pleasure to coach them” she says.

Just when we begin to wrap up our meeting, a parent approaches Ma’am Candy with his young one, inquiring about the ongoing tournament’s roster. After providing them brief instructions, she glances back at me, and then at the Willingdon Squash Courts. “Ever since I first started with the game, I never quite stopped, as a player, a coach or a proud affiliate. It was in these very courts that I received my first training session as a sixteen-year old, back in 1976. And here I continue to remain” she says, in a beaming nostalgia and grace of her own.

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ROYAL FABLES MAKING A COMEBACK

Anshu Khanna

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The last two years have been most trying on the craft community, the artisans who as per official numbers account for 40% employment within rural India. Whilst the elements of crafts that are part of functional existence still thrive the royal, regal, and rich.

I have had the good fortune to interact with many master craftsmen, artists and weavers who work within Palace Karkhanas under the direct patronage of royal scions who keep the legacy of craft alive. These palace karkhanas have historically housed legendary artist like Nihal Chand (Kishangarh 17th Century), Nain Sukh (Kangra 17h Century) Raja Ravi Varma (Baroda, 18th Century). Keeping this legacy alive are young royals and nobles who have converted parts of their homes that were erstwhile palaces and havelis into craft karkhanas.

Starting 15th September to the evening of 16th September all these heritage fables return to the city of their origin Delhi, telling their heritage fable at Bikaner House, home to the erstwhile royal family of Bikaner.

Royal Fables is my little prayer to keep the luxe side of Indian heritage alive. Something I stumbled upon 10 years ago. A scribe and a craft lover, I kept on meeting young royals who, despite sterling education, took the conscious decision to steer clear of urban living and fast paced careers. Instead they moved back to their roots, living in far flung towns of villages, converting their large homes into heritage homes and, at the same time, taking the legacy of patronage forward.

Hence Princess Vaishnavi Kumari, a SOAS graduate went back to her fort in Kishangarh, found the descendants from Nihal Chand’s family, revived the Kishangarh school of miniature art. Radhika Raje, the Maharani of Baroda invited young designers to get inspired by Ravi Varma artworks to create cushions, throws, art books, museum memorabilia and oelographs from the Baroda school to keep the historic residency alive. The young kunwar of Bera Yaduveer Singh revived the hand tucked hunter jackets, the rani of Baria Jaykirti brought back the beauty of block prints, the Mansa royal family led by Thakurani Darshana Kumari of Mandawa

So setting out, curating yet another year, let me share the top ten things you ought to watch out for in this comeback edition planned, executed and celebrated under the damocles sword of a pandemic:

1. The sheer beauty of Princess Vaishnavi Kumari of Kishangarh’s textile inspired miniature art. It is a veritable must have for any art lover.

2. The rich, embellished collection of jewels for the royals from Sujhal, Gujarat’s best kept secret.

3. The sheer beauty of heirloom pieces crafted by the young costumer Pankaj S who creates sheer magic with hand made tilla, vintage weaves, old tanjore art on textiles, jewelled necklines and the finest resham do taar collections for men.

4. Its time for textile lovers to be spoilt silly for choice. We have a treasure trove to take home: The vibrance of textile exponent Bela Sanghavi, patola’s, ikat and Paithani in silk rubs shoulders with the inimitable gold weave of Mansa, immortalized by Thakurani Darshana Kumari of Mandawa, Kanwarani Ritu Sinhji Wankaner who revives classic designs and gives them a contemporary twist. And to add to that is the first ever presence of Weaver’s Studio, the master weavers platform who step onto the forum for the first time with their vibrant Varanasi looms by Reshma Punj. Rich and regal and perfect for the festive feel.

5. If we speak of royalty can chiffons be left behind? Get festive ready with exquisitely embrodiered chiffons by Kanwarani Dipti Singh of Kacchi Baroda and Kanwarani Geetanjali Shekhawat Jassowala. Or opt for the digital prints by Rani Jaykirti Singh Baria. Couple them with her velvet jackets and capes. And lo and behold, you are an epitome of regalia.

6. We give back to society what society gives us through a dedicated space for varied charities. Urja lead by H.H. Maharani Radhika Raje Gaekwad of Baroda opens its first forum outside of Baroda, Giri Foundation that celebrates crafts of the hills brings clusters reviving the delicate Chamba rumal, Maneka Gandhi’s PFA returns with its hand blown glass and you have women from Afghanistan creating sustainable home décor elements with retouched saris and textiles.

7. Every aspect of royal heritage is captured through talks on royal cuisine, patronage, art, philanthropy, beauty rituals etc. Each talk steered by an industry expert. The library at Bikaner House will resonate with strong voices that relive the raj. Including the chat by Uday Pratap Singh in conversation with young royals and their ‘trysy with destiny’.

8. Heritage must be showcased to perfection and we have the top ateleirs participating in a costume parade that comes alive in the Chand Bagh of Bikaner house. Under the crystal sky and the shining stars will be presented 30 hand crafted pieces, modelled by young royals who walk to the tune of Umraa Langa singing with Kamaakshi Khanna

8. Last but not the least is our culinary platform Kitchen of the Kings that once again collaborates with the cloud kitchen of Pracheen, India before 1947 with the cuisine from the royal kithcens of Rampur. Scrumptious curries and kebabs cooked in flavored ghee from Pratap Garh celebrate the erstwhile era.

10. Last but not the least we promise to follow all Covid protocols ensuring the heritage experience is also safe and sound for each of our patrons of heritage.

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NITYA SINGH: WEAVING A MAGICAL TEXTILE TALE

Anshu Khanna

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Kanwarani Nitya Singh, or Bulbul as most in the royal fraternity know her as, is a much loved, exuberant textile revivalist who has made the fabric of Chanderi and its resurrection her raison d’etre. Born in the princely state of Sanand, Gujarat, a place known for its Goddess who blessed many legendary music maestros, including its ruler (her father) who was the guru of Pandit Jasraj, Bulbul grew up to the sounds of music and all things fine.

She got married to Sumer Singh from Garha in Guna, a jagirdari of the Scindia state, enjoyinga closeness to both Rajput and Maratha kingdoms. Bulbul, a true lover of classical music, while residing in her village learnt of the thriving weaves of Chanderi, also knowing first-hand of the rot that was setting in. “So many of the weavers were going off the hook to till land, work as labourers or rush off to the big towns of Bhopal and Indore,” she shares.

She decided to adopt a weaver’s school, inviting the artisans to create a full range of solid toned saris that she then got hand-painted and embellished with vintage borders. She shares, “Chanderi to the royals of our region is what chiffon is to our cousins in Rajasthan. It is the royal families that turned it into such a gossamer textile. I take the rich story a step further, adding vintage borders, embroidery and hand painting the three bastions of refinement patronised by women of noble blood.”

The weaving culture of Chanderi emerged between the 2nd and 7th centuries in the two cultural regions of the state, Malwa and Bundelkhand. The Chanderi sari tradition began in the 13th century. In the beginning, the weavers were Muslims. Around 1350, Koshti weavers from Jhansi migrated to Chanderi and settled there.

The tales of this celestial textile dates back to the times of Lord Krishna when his cousin Shishupal cited the use of Chanderi in the ancient literature. Also, one can find its mention in the old books like Maasir-i-Alamgir where Aurangzeb ordered the use of cloth embroidered with gold, silver and zari for making the khilat (a ceremonial robe or other gift given to someone by a superior). Chanderi textiles are fashioned by interlacing silk, and gold zari in the conventional cotton yarn, which results in the formation of the lavish, glistening texture.

For Bulbul, the weave is simply a canvas. “It is my playground where I create magical designs that we saw our mothers wear.”

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TALE OF TWO SISTERS AND A TRUNK

Tronc & Co. was born out of a love for trunks, boxes and the associated nostalgia, say Aaditi and Arushi Madhok, co-founders of Tronc & Co.

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Amidst the frequent bustle of Jaipur’s C-Scheme neighbourhood, there lies an alleyway leading up to yet another commercial building studded with subleased banks and offices. There, in front of an obscure white building is a black iron railing that cascades up a stairway that ends at a landing. The doorway lacks signage, and I begin to think I am in the wrong building, before Arushi, the younger of the two Madhok sisters, steps out.

She’s in the middle of a phone call, waving and beckoning me to come in. Two steps into the door, and I am engulfed in a different world, of artisanal trunks and nostalgia that doesn’t percolate to its passerby’s in the slightest. A pastel-coloured lobby welcomes me in, with a trunk accented at the centre of lounge chairs. Further inside, there are yet more trunks dominating the centre of seating arrangements, and in one prominent corner of the room against the backdrop of a large bay window, I see a large work desk headed by two executive chairs instead of one. This chic workspace jointly belongs to Aaditi and Arushi Madhok, my childhood family friends and more notably, the co-founders of Tronc & Co.

Over a casual rendezvous over cups of green tea with the Madhok sisters, we discussed everything from spiritual retreats to post-pandemic tourism, pet peeves at design exhibitions to Aaditi Jija’s newly found fascination towards political firebrand Mahua Moitra. But most significantly, I learned some interesting insights into their entrepreneurial story as India’s very first creators of bespoke luxury trunks. Thus culminated Aaditi and Arushi Madhok’s very first feature with Rajputana Collective.

“Tronc & Co. was born out of a love for trunks, boxes and the associated nostalgia. Usually, the trunks that one sees predominating the market are highly androgynous in their appearance. Contrary to standing out, they just blend right in. With Tronc & Co., we wanted to design pieces that are both feminine and high on design in ways that make them stand out from the rest”, begins Aaditi Madhok.

In a renewed birthing era of Jaipur’s independent design labels, Tronc & Co. shares not only its native place with the likes of Kesya, Polofactory and Dhora, but also its co-foundation by a pair of entrepreneurs. However, while their contemporaries have spelt vogue within existing design tropes, Tronc & Co. has embarked upon an unchartered territory in this regard. In other words, Aaditi and Arushi are markedly the first designer duo to reclaim an article as undermined as the trunk and rethink its aesthetic and functionality at an entirely different paradigm altogether.

In an elaboration, Arushi says, “The scope of trunks is immense. They can be used for both storage as well as furniture or accent pieces. A trunk can be designed to look like an antique or an ultra-modern piece. A trunk is both luxurious and functional- at Tronc & Co. we believe a trunk can transform any space- large or small. Our design sensibility is a take on antique prints whereby we re-imagine and re-work nostalgia with a dash of the whimsical.” Having pursued a designing course at Raffles, Singapore, the younger Madhok imparts her own flair onto the young venture.

Aaditi and Arushi jointly emphasise upon their design values that revolve around uniquely customised products based exclusively on the client’s requirements. The bespoke factor of their products is what they believe makes Tronc & Co. a truly unique experience for the buyer. Upon being asked, they even share the experience of their first order commissioned to Tronc & Co.

“Our first order was for a hand-painted gun case, and we were over the moon. That feeling of heading to work with a clear purpose was almost a heady feeling. We had to educate ourselves on guns and the working structure of a gun case, which was very interesting. The fact that this gun case turned out beautifully got us many more orders, and that was incredibly rewarding”, they recall.

Today, Tronc & Co’s design inventory consists of not only trunks and gun cases, but also watch and jewellery boxes and bespoke handbags. The latter has gained immense popularity of late, and its rare value resides in the Madhoks’ commitment towards never repeating a design for two orders. Hence, each one of their handiworks tells its own story that is impossible to be re-enacted by another. All their products are handcrafted in Jaipur from start to finish.

“After the drawing board, production starts with the team of carpenters who craft the piece by hand. Then, the piece goes to the polishing unit for base preparation, allowing our team of artists to start with the artwork. Thereafter, it is sent back to the polishing unit for a multilayer lacquer finish. Lastly, the bells and whistles from our specially designed brassware are installed”, Arushi explains.

Exploring the advantages and limitations of working in a partnership venture, I ask them about their experience of co-working as sisters. “Working with my sister has been an absolute pleasure, having a shared childhood and shared experiences and values makes it so much easier to work together. Though we are two very different people, our core values are aligned and that makes all the difference. Being able to share our accomplishments and fulfill our dreams together could never be the same as anyone else”, says Aaditi, who is seven years older than Arushi.

As they put together vision boards for new handbag designs, the duo at Tronc & Co. earnestly shares a more futuristic dream. “We hope to someday have stores in New York, London and Milan. To have our handbags showcased at Fashion Week is a big dream for us. Most importantly, we wish for Tronc & Co. to grow from strength to strength, to be synonymous with top quality and ultimate craftsmanship,” they add.

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