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Royally Speaking


Shradha Akka Nikam is a tapestry artist, fashion designer, costume restorer, royal furnishing creator and an art aficionado who can magically bring any surface alive.

Anshu Khanna



Tapestry art has always been integral to the handcraft legacy of princely India. A congregation of rare embroideries, these tapestries were traditionally used for costume enhancement of the royals and for creating large chattars, wall hangings and tents for the palace. Tales of love’s enchantment, an ode to the rich flora and fauna that marked the palace gardens, imagery of Gods and Goddesses and linear, architectural lines. Rendered in beads, gold threads, a generous use of vintage techniques, these tapestries have inspired generations of Indians.

Cut to today and the world of tapestry design is in the hands of a maverick genius, a designer who belongs to Kolhapure and today is treating many Maratha royals to her divine designs. Shradha Akka Nikam is a tapestry artist, fashion designer, costume restorer, royal furnishing creator and an art aficionado who can magically bring any surface alive. “While the techniques applied are purist, their interpretation is young, happy and different. Why should the bride weight herself down with paisleys and flowers that she does not identify with in her real life?”

Shradha uses the ancient hand techniques of zardoz, dabka, beadwork and Parsi gara to create embroideries of rare chutzpah. Her bridal lehengas even featuring everyday loves of the bride like a mobile phone, a lipstick, a scissor, and a dresser all created out of the finest of embroideries. Her creations have the right fusion of beauty and fashion and a rich rendering of vintage charm.

I met her at her gorgeous home in New Delhi. I was invited to witness her stunning Ganesh puja. Full of very endearing touches, the puja culminated in the most scrumptiously rich puja food you can ever hope to devour on a Maratha table; Shradha had us stumped out of our food coma when she walked us to her basement where khaddis after khaddis of embroidery in progress left us numb with love.

Shradha Nikam’s ancestral roots lie in the Nikams who are descendants of Suryavanshi king Nikumbh and his successors Nikumbh Rajputs. Born and raised between Kolhapure and Mumbai and married to a brilliant art director, Saurabh Chaddha, Shradha keeps her roots in the Maratha world alive. Close to the Chhatrapati Shivaji’s ancestral family in Kolhapur, she has a great patron in Yuvrani Madhurima Raje Chhatrapati, as well as Her Highness Maharani Radhika Raje Gaekwad of Baroda. The latter also inviting her to re-upholster the ceremonial thrones in the Lakshmi Vilas Palace, Baroda. “The Maratha royals are fiercely proud of their lineage, their rituals and their style of traditional dressing. When icons like these endorse my design I do feel truly humbled.”

Shradha possesses a talent in creating a unique fusion of fine textures, vibrant colours, cutting-edge silhouettes and bold, life-like embroideries: All in tune with the contemporary styling of the modern era enhanced by evergreen old-world charm. A fusion that created ripples in the fashion industry, Nikam launched her own label through a mega-fashion show model. Today, the city that booms with fashion witnesses her set up that creates delightful surprises as she closely works with her team to bring out the most exquisite embroidery designs that brides fall in love with.

Creating chiffon saris with her vintage borders in luscious colours, she also does immense drama with her blouses that sometimes make a bigger statement than the solid-coloured sari itself. Shradha’s bridal ensembles work on the interplay of fit and volume, her signature lehenga sometimes featuring her famed 90 kalis, all rendered in the most beautiful and textural raw silk. But the most stunning of all is when she handpicks the finest chintz prints and florals in soft muslins creating tiny pinafores for her beautiful daughters. Or when she fills her room with the most endearing upholstery in stark white embroidered tapestry.

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Royally Speaking

Importance of leisure travel during Covid 2.0



Just this morning, when I was washing down my last omelette morsel with coffee did I read the Covid 2.0 news bulletin: “India overtakes Brazil as world’s second worst-hit country by Covid-19 with a record rise in daily cases surpassing the 12-lakh mark.” The ghastly picture of this time around last year sent a shudder down my spine. Another national lockdown? More casualties, an overloaded medical infrastructure and the continued crippling of our economy?

Would 2020 repeat itself after all?

Having had little interim period to recover from the dread of last year, will our rising pandemonium plummet us into a global mental pandemic? With the drastic surges in daily cases, even the nonchalant fence sitters amongst us are beginning to feel a tad bit anxious. And what frightens us all is the continued lack of protocol adherence in densely populated hubs around us. In his recent news broadcasts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes frequent reassurances over the surging numbers: higher tests being conducted amount to higher figures. The Covid vaccine will slowly but surely immunise us all. This strain is more virile but less lethal. And the speculations continue. Cases rise, as does existentialist dread. 

By the time this feature is published in my column, Himachal Pradesh would be on its last date of permitting entrants without a negative RTPCR report. Regulatory bolts by state governments are already tightening as I write, and for the best reasons of course. But amongst the endless obscurities lies the fate of the hospitality industry during Covid 2.0. 

Pardon me for sounding frivolous if you might, but as an independent hotelier in Manali, I am responsible for raising over 50% of my annual revenue in the brief window that lies between April and July. With this, I must secure the livelihoods of dozens of my employees whilst also ensuring their utmost safety at work. My staff and I are fully prepared to comply with more stringent safety protocols, to put ourselves out there in a way that best assures forthcoming visitors as they count on us. But here is why I am more pensive than ever: Despite the hospitality industry being amongst the world’s largest employers, Indian hotels received as little as zero SOPs during the initial stages of last year’s lockdown. As the months straggled by, finances dwindled and many players in the trade were compelled to either lay off their manpower or close down altogether. And what’s more, the lack of leisure travel weighed down more heavily on the global population that underwent indefinite months of the lockdown. 

2021 offers us the rare hindsight that we lacked last time around. Without dismissing the paramountcy of disease mitigation to the very least, I make a sincere bid in favour of systematising our prevention and containment strategies with an increased commitment vis-à-vis mental health. It is typical for the average citizen to dismiss this plea as superficial and disregarding of collective health and immunisation. In truth, it is quite on the contrary. Urging the supervised continuance of leisure travel in fact, garners our prolonged resilience to the pandemic. In other words, the power of a physical, emotional and mental recess from our daily mundanities only renews and strengthens our coping mechanisms towards those mundanities. Add on top of those mundanities a global pandemic, and the sanctity of that recess only becomes more apparent. 

Take for example our most cardinal set of practitioners: The military, medical professionals, lawyers, engineers, teachers and so on. Whom do they turn towards for their daily recesses? Artists, entertainers, creators. And ironically enough, their relative lack of monetary opulence has led our economies to regard them as redundant or secondary professions. This tendency of ours to generalise holds account for our similar relegation of the hospitality industry as not so cardinal. For a social-scientist, this is barely surprising. After all, doesn’t capitalism condition us all to believe that in order to pursue anything at all, we must derive its commercial worth? So much so that never mind its role in our essential functioning, a general lack of its economical yield must instantaneously induce shame?

A second irony springs out here. How can an economy maximise itself while neglecting the very source of that maximisation? No wonder most gym goers (in that very economy) are unaware of muscle development taking place during the recovery hours/days without which, all they’d be left with is muscular damage and injuries. Why must we then deny ourselves those essential recesses that further not only our survival, but enhance our growth?

On the brighter side, adapting to the new normal has equipped the hospitality sector with tremendous means of innovation that are strengthening its resolve. Contactless check ins and check outs, state of the art fumigations, contactless services, social distancing, QR code menus and responsible tourism is not just the need of the hour, but also a promise for a brighter and better future. And what better symbiosis than one that trades off service, rejuvenation, economic empowerment and experience all at the same time? An answer is yet to appear in sight, but these questions must be asked and pondered, over and over again.

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Royally Speaking


As Gangaur remains a relatively understated affair this year, the noble families of Mewar, Marwar and Shekhawati offer a throwback into the glorious festivities of the pre-pandemic era.

Priyamvada Singh



Ever since I shifted to my ancestral village, Meja, a few years ago after a long stint in Mumbai, I began to realise that one of the best things about residing in rural Rajasthan in the scorching heat of April is that you get to witness the fortnight-long festivities of Gangaur in all its pomp and pageantry. The celebrations commence with the advent of the Chaitra month of the Hindu calendar and continue for eighteen days culminating on Teej.

Each year, from the day following Holi, the corridors of Meja Fort resonate with the laughter of giggly village girls who arrive here straight after school carrying festive garments in their school bags. More giggles and quick makeovers later, these excited teenagers step out donning vibrant “ghaghra-odnis” gorgeously accessorised with colourful bangles and ethnic jewellery. Singing the Isar-Gangaur song in perfect harmony, they gather around and pray to the pindiyas—round-shaped figurines made with ashes of the Holi pyre considered to be symbolic representations of Gangaur.

Elaborating upon this tradition, my grandmother Maaji Saheb Hansa Kumari of Meja explains, “Gan signifies Lord Shiva or Isar Ji and Gaur denotes Gauri or Goddess Parvati. Gangaur is revered as the perfect embodiment of conjugal bliss so women pray to her for marital accord and unmarried girls pray with the hope of being blessed with ideal life partners.” The pragmatist in me knows that these prayers may or may not be answered, but the optimist in me silently prays along with them, hoping their wish is granted. As my grandmother says, “Hope can be a powerful force. When you hold onto hope like a light within yourself, the universe sometimes conspires to make things happen—almost like magic.”

Echoing my grandmother’s sentiments is Rani Manjushree Kumari of Bhadrajun who has been diligently doing the Gangaur puja since her adolescence. She likes to believe that divine intervention may have played its part in finding her a perfect match in Raja Karanveer Singh Ji about three decades ago. “I used to pray to these tiny idols of Isar-Gangaur at my parental home for years. When I got married, I brought them along from Poogal-Bikaner to Bhadrajun. Each year, I pray before them throughout the festival, and on the last day, I pray to the big ancestral idols along with family and the people of our village.” 

Public participation has always been an integral part of this festival and people come together irrespective of their social milieus to celebrate one of the most revered female divinities. The eve of Gangaur holds special significance for the potter community as they are visited by a pageant of women dolled-up in fineries accompanied by local musicians to bring home the ladolas or clay idols of Isar-Gangaur. The procession receives a grand welcome on return to the forts and palaces across Rajasthan followed by an evening of festive revelry.

“The final day begins with the puja of the clay idols with sprouted jowar (sorghum) germinated over a fortnight at home,” says Kawarani Rudrangda Kumari of Kankarwa. “An array of ornaments gets made for the Gangaur using besan (gram flour dough) and it is rather intriguing to see pieces of traditional jewellery from head to toe like the tevta (a regal neckpiece), rakhdi (a spherical maangtika), bajubandh (armlets), paijeb (anklets), etc, being created with such an unusual ingredient. The last day is considered the day of Gangaur’s departure from her parental home to her husband’s abode, so this jewellery forms a part of her trousseau.”

Most noble families have their ancestral idols passed down through generations and many of them have captivating stories attached to them. Rani Sugan Kumari of Bedla shares the fascinating history of her family’s fragmented Gangaur whose body was damaged during a battle many years ago and what remains is just the head. “The idol cannot be repaired as per tradition but it is dressed in a way that its disability is not revealed and reverently worshipped year after year.”

Baisa Swati Kumari of Chanoud narrates an interesting tale about a century-old miniature Gangaur in the possession of her family. “We have the regular size wooden idols just like other noble families but our mini-Gangaur was fashioned more than a hundred years ago exclusively for the convenience of little girls to pray during the festival.” The silver coating embossed on this idol has withered with time but the delicate figurine glazed with natural colours beautifully adorns a stone niche at Chanoud Fort even today.

Another anecdote that deserves special mention is about the Gangaur of Kota which was tactfully stolen by Kunwar Lal Singh of Gogunda on being challenged by the Maharana of Mewar. Rajrana Rohitashva Singh relates how his ancestor appeared before the Maharaja of Kota disguised as a skilled rider who could make the wooden Gangaur dance on his horse. “Once he got hold of the Gangaur, he heroically escaped from there and presented it to Maharana Saab on return. Rewarding his daring act, MaharanaSaab asked him to retain this Gangaur at Gogunda. This idol remains a major attraction during our procession every year.”

Processions are carried out throughout the state on the last day of the festival for which the idols are dressed in ceremonial poshaks and traditional ornaments. They are first seated in the zenana chowk where women offer their prayers and later brought out in the mardana chowk where the men seek their blessings. While the women indulge in ghoomar, men perform the gair dance—a local equivalent of the dandiya. Certain families enact the entire wedding ceremony between Isar and Gangaur. Rani Kavita Kumari of Kharwa reveals how their family’s sole Isar weds their two Gangaurs each year completing four pheras with one idol and three with the other! 

After the initial ceremonies at the royal residences, the processions head out in the respective villages. One of the most distinguishing characteristics about the Gangaur procession in Mandawa is that parallel celebrations take place in the abodes of the kingdom’s two founders Padam Singh Ji and Gyan Singh Ji, as accounted by Thakurani Manjul Kumari of Mandawa. “There have always been two sets of Isar-Gangaurs which are taken out every year for the procession. Care is taken to ensure that neither one of them is even slightly ahead of the other. In earlier days, this was reason enough for swords to be drawn and a skirmish to take place!”

In its last lap, the regal spectacle passes through lanes and by-lanes of the villages accompanied by colourful dancers, indigenous musicians and a sparkling display of fireworks. Making a final halt at a nearby lake or pond, the convoy performs the puja one last time before immersing the eco-friendly clay idols—the pindiyas and ladolas in water. This signifies Goddess Parvati’s farewell to Lord Shiva’s abode from her parental home. As emotional songs of vidaai reverberate under starlit summer skies, heavy hearts and tearful eyes lovingly bid adieu to the dissolving effigies of Gangaur, while the tangible wooden idols return to their chambers in the forts and palaces to hibernate for the next twelve months.

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Royally Speaking

Bikaner House: Reclaiming its lost glory

The restoration of the Bikaner House is commendable and must be looked up to as a model for the rest of the heritage buildings in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Anshu Khanna



For most of us who grew up in Lutyens’ Delhi, the erstwhile palaces of Princely India merely became synonyms for sarkari offices. I spent two lovely years in Curzon Road (or Kasturba Gandhi Marg, as it is known today) and recall these buildings as everyday symbols of a young girl’s college life. Taking the bus to college, walking across the Rashtrapati Bhavan each morning, trudging to play badminton in the External Affairs hostel, one never realised that many a dilapidated edifice around us were actually home to the erstwhile Maharajas.

Patiala House was where you got your documents notarized, Hyderabad House was at the end of the road, Bikaner House was where you caught a bus to go to Jaipur and Alwar House was where a friend worked for the Human Rights Commision. Hence, it was a real delight to receive a souvenir copy of the Bikaner House from the gracious management of this cultural centre and browse through the marvel of an elegant home which had been restored to near-original glory.

Founded by the visionary ruler HH Maharaja Ganga Singh, historically known for his ambitious Ganga Canal work, Bikaner House was designed by British architect Blomefield and has played host to the who’s who of British and Indian nobility. On several occasions during the 1930s and 40s, the Council of Indian Princes held deliberation as guests of the Bikaner family. HH Ganga Singhji personally played host to King George the Vth, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, while his father HH Sadul Singhji often had his dear friend Lord Mountbatten drop in for a game of badminton with his pretty wife, Lady Edwina.

Restored today by the Government of Rajasthan and turned into one of the city’s most gracious cultural venues, Bikaner House must hold the torch for other royal homes to be restored to their past regalia.

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Royally Speaking




Contrary to most children his age, Adhiraj Singh Devra was intrigued by his ancestral guns and weapons to an extent that made him wanted to speed up his growth to an age that would permit him to further interact with these marvels. As a young boy, his introduction to the sport of shooting began as a result of the educational curriculum directed specifically by his father. Based on the Vedic tenets of one’s illumination on shaastras (religious precepts) and shastras (arms), the unique teaching method fuelled Adhiraj’s inborn curiosity vis-a-vis the latter. When he turned 13, he was taken to the shooting range by his father and registered into the Samvit Shooting Sansthan, a training academy after which, it didn’t take him long to turn into a professional shooter.

Throughout his undulating career as a young shooter and now as a budding trainer, Adhiraj has held the late Maharaja Dr Karni Singhji of Bikaner as his idol. After all, it was Maharaja Dr Karni Singhji who inspired Adhiraj’ family to pursue the sport of shooting as a matter of which a passion for shooting began to be cultivated before percolating down to him at a young age.

In the eight years that have followed Adhiraj’s first day at the range, he has won several national as well as state-level awards in the category of air pistol shooting. Yet, there is no sporting journey that lacks its own set of hurdles, and Adhiraj briefly illustrates the biggest challenge that he has faced as a shooter thus far.

It was 2013 and the budding professional was in top form, with a selection into the Youth Olympic Games that were to be held in Nanjing, China in the following year. In what he perceives to be a personal vendetta by a poorly-spirited competitor, Adhiraj suffered a tragic motorbike accident and sustained multiple attempts to injure his dominant arm. This horrific incident proved to be not just physically damaging, but also morally devastating for Adhiraj, with his self-esteem at an all-time low. Nanjing was obviously out of the question and his shooting career had attained an overnight standstill.

Over the next two years, Adhiraj willed his way back to recovery with some intensive therapy and rehabilitation efforts for his hand. He also spent this time to regain his focus and improve on his shooting technique. In a summarisation of this trying phase, Adhiraj emerges stronger as a true sportsman would. In his words, “with this life-changing experience, I reminisce on how it made me stronger. I was not altered in my determination to again become the best. I see life as a gift, and am grateful for the challenge as it made me a gentleman and true sportsperson.”

Once he had made his dashing re-entry into the world of shooting, nothing could stop Adhiraj now. Not only had he resumed his exhaustive list of awards and accolades, but had also taken to teaching the sport to other amateurs and aspirants.

Taking this crucial experience in his stride, Adhiraj became more aware of the psychological imperatives of the sport.

In December 2017, Adhiraj introduced to Ahmedabad the city’s first professional shooting academy called the ‘Thunderbolt Shooting Academy’. Through this initiative, Adhiraj alternates the training of professional shooters with the promotion of the sport as a recreational activity. More specifically, he has opened his doors to walk-ins who are looking to try their hand at shooting with the added guidance of professionals and veterans, hence making the sport more accessible to the layperson.

“My aim is to share the hidden attributes of shooting as a sport and getting more youth to know the sport while providing the best possible training through professionally-run institutes and quality equipment. Ultimately, I’d like to contribute to a greater number of players at national and international levels,” Adhiraj concludes.

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Royally Speaking




The undisputed festival of colours that heralds spring and harvest, Holi is celebrated year after year throughout the country in the utmost spirit of love and effervescence. Bearing its name after Holika, the mythological significance of this festival traces back to the popular legend of Hiranyakashyapa, who envied his son’s powerful devotion towards Lord Vishnu and felt his godly self-image threatened by the same. Hiranyakashyapa’s sister Holika incidentally had a boon to remain unscathed by fire and hence, when she schemed with her brother to enter a blazing pyre with his son Prahlad on her lap, what followed was beyond her palpable imagination. No sooner was Holika reduced to ashes than Prahlad came out of the fire, completely unharmed. The miraculous outcome of a deliberately sinister conspiracy highlights Lord Vishnu’s divine intervention wherein he had protected Prahlad against all odds of nature while Holika paid for using her supernatural immunity with ill-intention. When seen thematically, the story of Holika illustrates the inevitable victory of good over evil; and the eternal protection of devotees by God.

Although this legend suffices to explain the Holika Dahan ritual (a communal incarceration of funeral pyres symbolic of Holika and all evil that is destroyed and purged under the supreme victory of the good), very few partakers of Holi are versed with the story that brought the game of colour smearing into being, a custom that is central to Holi celebrations in India.

In this Festive Recap issue, Rajputana Collective highlights Holi as it is celebrated in Brijbhoomi, or the mythical birthplace of Radha and Krishna formed by the geographical conglomeration of Mathura, Vrindavan, Barsana and Nandgaon in Uttar Pradesh. Known for its unparalleled celebration of Holi festivities, Brijbhoomi places all its regional counterparts to shame for the sheer magnitude and iconicity in which it rejoices the spirit of Holi. If a U.P.-ite is asked about the nature of Holi celebrations in their hometown, chances are that his/her reply will be: “U.P. mein Holi nahi kheli toh kya kheli?” Which translates into, “you haven’t played Holi until and unless it was in U.P.!” Join Rajputana Collective as it uncovers the mythical significance and symbolism of Holi in the lands where the festival is believed to have originated.

When her beloved son Krishna complained about the injustice done to him by mother nature that made his skin so dark, Yashodha pacified him by suggesting that he coloured his beloved Radha’s fair complexion with smears of gulaal to make it look like his own. Accompanied by his friends, the mischievous Krishna then proceeded to Radha’s residing village of Barsana to lovingly smear her and the other gopis with gulaal or powder made of turmeric and flower extracts. In a playful retort, the damsels of Barsana gave Krishna and his allies a memorable beating with sticks (laths).

As the enigmatic and playful duo of Radha-Krishna became divinely etched into the religious consciousness of the nation, this customary charade finds annual resonance in Brijbhoomi. Home to the only temple to be solely-dedicated to Radha, Barsana embraces its iconic custom of lathmar Holi with much fervour year after year. From days in advance, mother-in-laws of Barsana indulge in their daughter-in-laws with rich food in order to prepare their strength for the exciting battle of sticks and shields that ensues during this festive period. On the day of the festival, women from the Barsana village indulge in what is known as lathmar Holi with their male counterparts hailing from Krishna’s village of Nandgaon by playfully beating them with laths. The men in turn, defend themselves from the heavy stick pelting with the help of shields while singing songs to provoke this playful incentive by the ladies. The very next day, the direction of this offensive is returned. Now, the men of Barsana repeat this playful act with the women of Nandgaon and are similarly hurled at with laths.

An electric array of colours is splashed at one another while songs are sung in the native Brajbhasha. Bhaang-laced thandaais intoxicate this exuberant play of colours while sweetmeats like gujiyas and melodious folk songs engulf the air. Through this communal celebration of fun, fellowship and love, Brijbhoomi’s heart throbs in technicolour as it commemorates its celestial couple: Radhe Krishna.

If Radha’s birthplace hails the annual festival of colours with so much revelry, it is but natural that Krishna’s hometown would strive to live up to the spirit. The townships of Mathura and Vrindavan come alive during Holi in a fashion that is, at best fantasised by remaining parts of the country. As Mathura entertains its holi procession from Vishram ghat to the Holi gate, Vrindavan’s 19th century Baanke Bihari temple pre-celebrates Holi on the day of ekadashi with what is famously referred to as phoolon wali Holi. This is a renowned celebration of Holi wherein colourful gulaal is substituted with flowers. The 15-20-minute-long event comprises of thick showers of flower petals being showered down on devotees by the temple’s priests. The epicentre of Brijbhoomi’s Holi festivities the Baanke Bihari temple opens its gates on the day of Holi such that devotees can ecstatically exchange colours with the temple-residing idol of Lord Krishna. The mesmerising sprays of different colours is truly a sight worth beholding. The Iskon Temple, Prem Mandir and Pagal Baba temples of the area show similar avidness and zeal. What’s more, just three years ago, the widow community of Vrindavan celebrated their first Holi, streaking their perennial white drapes with unapologetic tints of liberation, a proud moment of ceremonial freedom and social progress.

Speaking of colours, it is worth noting that every hue used in the amusement of Holi carries with it a symbolic meaning of its own. For example, as red represents love and fertility, green does spring and new beginnings. Blue carries itself forward as the colour of Lord Krishna and yellow, the colour of unity and felicity. In smearing colour on one another’s faces, people exchange emotional hues irrespective of one another’s age, class, caste, creed, gender or status. Old enmities or ruptures are forgotten on this day as everyone rejoices the all-encompassing goodwill. With everyone’s faces being coloured, interpersonal boundaries come to be blurred even if it is just for this one day, which complicates the habitual distinction that the society draws between the rich and the poor, the twice borns and the others. As the spirit of Holi calls for everyone to drop their guards and inhibitions, a popular slogan that floods Indian streets and village lanes is, “bura naa maano, Holi hai!”, which can be translated into “don’t get offended, it’s Holi after all!” Be it an utterance by the child aiming water balloons on passing cars or the young girl colouring her in law’s cheeks, these mischievous acts are perceived a mile’s distance away from nuisance, for if there is one day to bring alive the Radhas and Krishnas in each one of us, and to let them dance, sing, play and love, it’s this.

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Royally Speaking


Through their opulent lifestyles and patronage to the arts, the erstwhile Maharajas set an aesthetic tone which is followed even today. An excerpt from ‘Profile of a Patron’, a collectible book published by Royal Fables, talks about the importance of art within the majestic princely palaces of India.



The loftiness of expansive forts, the impermeable columns in palaces that still hide within them stories of a distant past, the glimmer of luminescent chandeliers, jewels that cradled the soft bosoms of regal high-priestesses and the luxuries of custom-made four-wheeled beauties are just the tip of the iceberg that is the Maharaja story.

The erstwhile rulers of the princely states of India made new definitions in living escalated and extravagant lifestyles by the day. The Maharaja era has not just left deposits of amusing stories of a time gone by, but has bequeathed legacies upon us that today show windows to an Indian past which was luxurious, magnificent and incomparable!

Whatever the criticism of the decadent lifestyle of the Maharajas, none can deny that wittingly or unwittingly they created masterpieces in art and architecture, giving artists and art a unique place. So exclusive was the craftsmanship of those times that any attempt to copy has been largely unsuccessful, for the creations of yore cannot be matched or replicated. Contrary to criticism for their opulence, many erstwhile rulers laid emphasis on art, architecture and craft, supporting communities of artists and craftsmen with their continuous patronage.

Many kingdoms prospered with art, textiles and embroidery being encouraged within kingdoms and trade routes opened up giving merchants and artists new opportunities and accessibility.

Maharaja Umaid Singh of Jodhpur, a great patron of art and architecture, came up with the most ingenious idea of providing employment to locals in the middle of a famine. While Jodhpur was struggling with the monsoons failing consecutively, the Maharaja decided to build the Umaid Bhawan Palace, providing employment to over 3,000 local people. The building stands as the first palace built in Art Deco style in the 1920s.

While art and artists flourished, providing employment to locals, it is the personal interests of princely rulers in creating stupendous examples of material wealth that led to the making of some of the most beautiful palaces, forts, temples, paintings, costumes, chandeliers and jewels.

Not only were some of these Indian rulers encouraging and endorsing art in all forms within their kingdoms, they were also setting new standards internationally and employing fresh architects of creativity to quench their mammoth artistic desires, which often came hand-in-hand with a zealousness to possess the finest quality products ever made available for mankind. A good example of the erstwhile states sponsoring international artists is again Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan Palace. Polish artist Stefan Norblin was commissioned by the Jodhpurs to create murals and portraits of the family apart from interior-designing the palace.

Archibald Herman Muller, an artist of German origin, received the patronage of the royal houses of Bikaner, Nawanagar, Jaipur and Jodhpur. He painted prolifically in these states, having started in Bikaner in 1922 and then moving on to become a state-sponsored artist for Jodhpur where he eventually died in 1960. Some of his depictions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana show him as an artist of great skill who never compromised on quality.

In fact, his patrons encouraged him to retain his own belief in art rather than influencing his creativity by imposing what they wanted, as on an occasion the painter denied selling his work to a client who wanted him to make changes.

While Muller left lasting impressions in Bikaner, local artist Ruknuddin and later his son Shahadin produced the best miniature paintings under the patronage of the Bikaners. Similarly, in Jaipur, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II set up 36 karkhanas (departments) which catered to different aspects, including music, armory as well as literature (through the pothikhana karkhana or library).

Says Diya Kumari of Jaipur, “My father realised the importance of preserving whatever was left of the karkhanas. We had lost many of them over time and fortunately we have been able to display 10 of these left in the palace museum, all of which were revived by my father.”

Noted 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma found patronage in Baroda where he lived for 14 years. The artist’s studio still remains in the Baroda palace. In fact, Sayajirao Gaekwad III was such a far-sighted man and a complete aesthete that when it came to promoting fine arts, he left no stone unturned. It helped that his wife, Maharani Chimna Bai I, a princess of Tanjore, had great knowledge of Bharatnatyam and brought a few Tanjore dancers to Baroda as part of her dowry.

The Tanjore dancers attained huge acclaim as performers in Baroda, which was gradually turning into a throbbing cultural centre, elevating art to a higher pedestal. From Ustad Moula Bux, Sayajirao’s court also produced gems like Ustad Inayat Khan and Ustad Faiyyaz Khan in music.

“Patronage of artists in state times had such a lasting impact that even now Baroda is considered the cultural capital of Gujarat. Generations of artists were supported and encouraged in Baroda and it still produces some of the best talent in art. I guess it stems from the fact that art has been around in every aspect of Baroda and people have grown up around it. Sculptor Felici made a dancing figure based on one of the Tanjore dancers who were not just looked upon as nautch girls but as performers of great repute,” says Radhika Raje, the daughter-in-law of the Baroda royal family who now looks after the palace museum and various family trusts.

Other acclaimed artists who enjoyed royal patronage in Baroda include Nandlal Bose and Phanindranath Bose.

Whether it was a piece of garment, quilt or even furniture – the emphasis in the princely times was on presenting bespoke pieces. Some fine examples of the Maharajas’ personal collections are still available with their families and the sheer luxury of artistry seen in even utilitarian tools is astonishing.

Take, for example, the Louis Vuitton luggage that many families commissioned with personal inscriptions on it. LV still prides itself over personal collections of the Kashmir royal family which was on display in their Delhi store sometime back. The Maharajas also carried the most ornate swords and weapons, many of which are showcased on ceremonial occasions even today.

Indian rulers were creating a new movement in hedonism that was stylized and unparalleled.

Even in fashion the trends set by the men and women of those times have been so amusingly niche that any attempt to replicate them may not elicit similar results, they were so eccentric and fascinatingly idiosyncratic. For instance, there was the Maharani of Cooch Behar, Indira Devi, a woman who was celebrated in the high societies of Paris and London as one of the most photographed faces. Indira Devi, a princess of Baroda, who later married the prince of Cooch Behar, became more conspicuous than she already was when she started carrying a pet turtle to evening soirees. Not only did it bewilder onlookers for the sheer choice of her evening companion, but the turtle dazzled them with its bejeweled shell comprising precious gemstones.

Whimsical as it appeared, the erstwhile royals were pushing the boundaries in art and fashion, forcing artists to think out of the box and were themselves creating trends that till date remain unrivalled.

The princely states were also making history on the world stage where the largest international commissions were made. The Patiala necklace made for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala by Cartier remains a priceless piece of history till date. In 1925 when the Maharaja visited Cartier in Paris he came back after having placed an order for the world’s largest necklace consisting of 2,930 diamonds!

Even in architecture, the sheer luxury of size was setting new standards. The Gwalior palace which boasts of having the two largest chandeliers in the world has an interesting story. Two elephants were pulled up on a pulley to see if the ceiling could take the weight of those chandeliers. Similarly, Baroda’s Lakshmi Vilas Palace built in the Indo-Saracenic style by Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III in 1890 had amenities such as elevators and intercoms in those days and till date, the residents of the palace claim, they have not had to change any plumbing! It remains the largest private residence ever built – the Buckingham Palace is only four times smaller in size compared to this wide-spread building which is now occupied by Sayajirao’s descendants.

The lifestyle of the Maharajas and their various passions have been documented through various exhibitions that have taken place globally. The pictures that appeared in studio La Fayette’s exhibition in the capital a few years ago portrayed the charismatic and opulent existence of the Maharajas reflecting how the Maharaja culture is an important aspect of history that shaped India’s future – especially in the fields of art, architecture, music and dance. Sepia-toned photos of regal Maharajas and Maharanis depicted imperial influences – they were amongst the first to commission portrait artists and later with the advent of photography they became avant-garde leaders in documenting their own lifestyles. From hunting scenes to coronations, the Maharajas enjoyed documenting their lives through photographs and paintings and inadvertently promoted both photography and painting as fine art.

Some noteworthy contributions were made by British photographer Dorothy Wilding and artists such as Alfred Jonniaux, whose portrait of Indira Devi in a white diaphanous saree remains amongst the most circulated photographs of that era. Among Indian artists, Raja Ravi Varma, who otherwise specialized in painting scenes from Indian mythology, made portraits of the entire royal family of Baroda.

The Maharajas indeed carefully looked into encouraging artistic idioms and their larger-than- life image of the heightened self, bedecked with ornaments and royal protocol, helped create fashion into an appreciated and admired art.

Their decadence, paradoxically, also encouraged the most luxurious presentations in their homes, surroundings and kitchens. The Maharaja lifestyle depicted esoteric tastes despite the obvious ostentation and each went ahead in outdoing the other in creating records of sorts.

It wasn’t competition that made princely rulers outdo the others. But in royal protocol much of it was based on idealized concepts of hospitality and generosity. Thrift was clearly a vice!

The Rampurs, known for their hospitality and lavish spreads, went out of their way to create unique feasts. For special occasions, they served pulao for which rice was carved out to resemble a pineapple before it was cooked.

The court culture added a flourish to entertainment which was carried out in the most beauteous surroundings. The need to spell their majesty in the most outstanding manner led to the creation of some of the finest durbar halls including those in Jaipur,

Jodhpur, Baroda, Mysore, Gwalior and Hyderabad still stand as intimidating witnesses to a glorious past. These were often accentuated by murals such as those depicting seasons, especially the monsoon, and clouds, that are common in the palaces of Rajasthan which received less rainfall. Each royal court had its own belief in patronizing royal art, craft and music. In fact, the great gharana system in music started from the courts of India, promoting generations of musicians. With the decline of princely India, musicians moved away from their former princely states to urban hubs, but carried the gharana tag which served as their distinct identity. Royal patronage produced some of India’s finest musicians such as Bismillah Khan who first found encouragement from the Maharaja of Darbhanga in Bihar where his maternal uncle played the shehnai.

The Nawab of Rampur, Raza Ali Khan, was such a lover of music that not only did he play the khartal himself, he invited musicians from all over India to his court and patronized the likes of Sitara Devi and Begum Akhtar. His granddaughter, Naghat Khan, says, “My grandfather was a pure lover of music. He did not just promote music as a ruler but was passionate and understood every aspect of it.”

The fall of the Mughals in the 18th century and the evolution of the princely states of India saw amongst many transitions, excesses, extravagances as well as the Maharaja’s whimsical journeys that today stand as a testament to royal patronage of art, architecture as well as music and dance.

The princely states took over from where the Mughals left. They helped in patronizing art and artists and gave it a new dimension under them as Mughal influences started diminishing.

The now famous miniature paintings of Rajasthan found a new lease of life under the new patronage of the Maharajas after the Mughal era declined. Princess Siddhi Kumari of Bikaner, who has been running the Prachina museum for the last 20 years, says, “Bikaner offered a very fluid environment for artists and with each successive ruler we saw art and architecture being encouraged and the streams evolved without any restrictions. The emphasis was on each form of artistic expression and not just a particular discipline.”

The Prachina museum has revived some old traditions with live demonstrations of art, as seen in European realism, all carried out by local artists. Today it supports fourth-generation craftsmen like Hanif Usta who work with camel hide, as well as carpenters who are skilled at making wooden carriages.

The opulence of princely India has faded with time. However, the rich stories still evoke a vibrant vision of an abundant and amusing bygone era. The past has turned into the present continuous as members of the erstwhile royal families are pitching a new place linking India’s vast art and craft traditions with the new world order.

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