Blue-blooded Indians have a truly tough mantle to wear. Heirs to a rich legacy, born to the arts and living in a fort or palace full of craft, they still position themselves as citizens of a democratic India. Go to the same schools, seek jobs or run businesses like any one of us. Yet once in their state, their region, its incredible how they get back to their original role of a patron. How they adopt the crafts and culture of their forefathers and its masters. And how with their evolved, contemporary design sense take it forward to adapt to the new world.
It was nearly a decade ago that I stumbled into their world, starting a revivalist project called Royal Fables. The scribe in me, the design addict felt like a child let loose in a candy store. I was swept off my feet with the way the royals patronised their local cultures bringing folk musicians, artists, weavers, cooks, and jewellers under their wing, allocating for them a space they called a Karkhana within their sprawling premises. A designated space where each of these masters could work in peace. Made for the Maharaja was a fable that turned real here in these studios. It was while in the residency of Emperor Akbar that Mian Tansen discovered the Tarana. It was in the fort of Kishangarh that Nihal Chand created his miniatures of Lord Shrinath. It was in Rampur and then Ayodhya that Begum Akhtar immortalised the thumri and Jaipur where Lalitabai recorded her first song on a gramophone.
Starting today, this column will rediscover the royal footprints in culture and look beyond their indulgences in Europe: The Cartier neckpieces they bought, or the Rolls Royce they converted into dustbins to real stories of valour and patronage.
A cordon bleu Indian first I want to offer a little window to their ‘real world’ which is nationalistic, committed and socially-driven.
So let’s start our journey in these covid times with profiles of Royal Covid heroes. The first in this four part series being Meenal Kumari Singhdeo, daughter-inlaw of the decorated officer and politician K.P. Singh Deo, and daughter of the much celebrated wildlife warrior Ranjit Sinh, retired bureaucrat and the one to write the wildlife act of India.
A craft protagonist she has spent the whole of June and half of May, either reaching out through social media to philanthropists or driving out of her palace in Dhenkanal down dusty roads to far-flung villages where she offers medicine, food and clothes to the Ikat weavers, the Pattachitra artists, the potters, the Dokra crafts people who are sitting totally idle, impoverished and lost ever since the pandemic struck and reached the farthest reserves of Odisha.
A large princely state of Odisha, Dhenkanal is a treasure trove of craft and Meenal, a natural textile revivalist and craft protagonist, has been working with a large community of artisans since 1990.
Once the lockdown eased a bit in May, she reached out to this community and what she encountered was heart-wrenching: “I was horrified to hear their stories of despair and hardship. My daughter, Yashasvini, and I decided to reach out to them with whatever little we could muster. She gave a part of her salary and we started going around distributing dry rations and aid to the artisans and weavers I worked closely with.”
There were many challenges. Maintaining social distance being the biggest. “We would walk into the village and all the 100-odd artisans would rush up to us, overjoyed to receive aid. They would want to come up close. None of them had masks on, so we would have to request them to cover their nose and mouth with their gamuchas and sarees as well as maintain a distance.”
More than that Meenal was disturbed at their state. “The situation was worse than I had anticipated; some of them had reached a state where they were alternating meals with their children. No raw material for the craft was available to work with, no new orders and no sales whatsoever. They were locked up and could not sell even at the local haats, fairs and market places. They had very little stock with them or the stocks were piled up with money blocked as in the case of some weavers. The basket weavers raw material had gathered fungus.”
She reached out to the world and the response was overwhelming. “We bought what little stock they had to encourage them to continue working. Each evening when we would get back we would place images of their craft online and by God’s grace someone or the other would want to buy it.”
Now waiting for the plight of the pandemic to end, Meenal says, “I resonate with the call to buy hand-made Indian. The artisan in the village is capable of making everything the villagers need, their clothes, utensils, art, and home ware. Then why should we not look inwards?” Even city slickers like us she feels can enjoy “a nice Pattachitra much more than a cheap painting from China! Or wear an easy breath Ikat pant rather than the one you get in nylon from the supermarket. Be Indian, buy Indian is my mantra for life.”
It’s been a month and a half and Meenal has reached out to over 500 families of Dokra artisans, weavers, bell metal workers, potters, blacksmiths, basket weavers, brass jewellery makers, straw craft artisans, pattachitra artists, drum makers, wood carvers, honey gatherers and fishermen not only in Dhenkanal but outside too. “A small act of reaching out to a few snowballed into a mission but one close to my heart.”
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HERE IS HOW TO GET THE MAHARANI LOOK
One cannot imagine scions of princely India stepping into their Durbars without exquisite jewels to add to their persona. While there have been numerous jewels, pearls have been fundamental to their adornment, leading them to be one of the most popular and often worn gems by many royals since time immemorial.
Of the many styles and signature elements that have contributed to making the Maharani look eternal, the author lists four seamless stories that you can imbibe to look like a blue-blooded beauty.
Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur.Poshak by Mangalmayi.Aad neckpiece by Kanak Kriti jewels.Princess Maanvi Kumari of Jobat.Ambika Raje Ghorpade of SandurPrincess Nandini Singh of Jhabua wearing Justchiffons cutworm saree.
Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar.
Maharanis from the erstwhile princely states of India have never failed to inspire and set unforgettable trends with their fashion choices. Whether it’s adorning jewels that are so expensive that only a few can afford them, converting Chantilly lace and printed floral chiffons imported from France into saris etched with vintage borders, or wearing a velvet cape embellished with the finest beading and embroidery crafted for them in their personal palace ateliers by European seamstresses, Indeed, women like Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, her mother Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, the beautiful Princess Niloufer of Hyderabad and the statuesque Rafat Zamani Begum of Rampur were eternal style icons, to say the least.
Of the many styles and signature elements that have contributed to making the Maharani look eternal, fashion stylist Ayra Imam lists four seamless stories that you can imbibe to look like a blue-blooded beauty.
Jewels have been an integral part of the royal legacy. One cannot imagine scions of princely India stepping into their Durbars without exquisite jewels to add to their persona. While there have been numerous jewels, pearls have been fundamental to their adornment, leading them to be one of the most popularised and often worn gems by many royals since time immemorial.
Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar was one such fanatic of pearls. A staple for her, she would pair her everyday sarees with a string of pearls. Her favourite was a simple two-or three-layer string of pearls. She was the only daughter of Maharaji Sayaji Rao and had grown up seeing her mother, Maharani Chimnabai II, wear pearls over her nine yards of Navasari in Chander weaves.
Worn simply or extravagantly, pearls have the opulent look needed to finish any look perfectly!
Ambika Raje Ghorpade, a Sandur sari influencer and royal, wears her precious pearls with an exquisite printed sari from The Silk Story to recreate her look. Try her look to feel an instant rush of regalia.
Chiffon has been a beautiful, translucent, and flowy fabric. It has been a classic style in the royal household. Women of Rajput ancestry wore chiffon every day, whether married in tribal Jhabua, freezing Kashmir, or to a family living in the silk belt of VIjaynagaram.
popularised by Maharani Gayatri Devi, who kept the tradition alive and wore chiffon saris on a regular basis. This royal classic style also inspired women from the upper echelons of North Indian society. Whilst we all know about floral saris, I would recommend you get inspired by this stunning embroidered chiffon sari by Just Chiffons, worn by Princess Maanvi Kumari of Jobat.
The Rajputs have a rich heritage, culture, and history that is still alive to this day. The attire worn by Rajput brides and women at weddings is called a poshak. It’s a four-piece outfit that includes a body-fitting, backless Kanchi that doubles as a bustier, a loose-fitting kurti, a square-shaped odhni, and frilled, embroidered lehengas. An, intricately embroidered garment, wearing it is a tedious process that requires inherent craftsmanship.
Poshaks come in different design variations with Aari, zardozi, cutwork, Kundan work, Kalkatti work, Gota Patti work, etc. The most respected postal maker in Jaipur remains Mangalmayi by Sandeep Burad, a textile revivalist who has dressed hundreds of royal princesses on their special day.
Rajasthan is known for its traditional jewellery that combines various techniques of making. Be it intricate jadaus that are hand painted beautifully, or the meenakari technique, the art of inlay. However, one iconic piece of jewellery worn by royal women is the Aad, a necklace worn around a bride’s slender neck.
Made from the magnificent combination of Kundan and pearls, it is a form of necklace around the high neck.
Rajasthani aads appear in different varieties, including jadau, kundan, meena, and marwadi. Plus, there is the desi aad, which is clasped with a woven red, green, yellow, and pink cheeda (small pearls) in a multi-layer motif incorporating gold and silver threading.
The Aad by Kanak Kriti Jewels, a brand founded by Vibha Shekhawat, are possibly the most stunning pieces. especially when rendered in partaash ka kaam, an authentic and intricate gold setting technique that has been lovingly restored by this Rajput designer.
Get on the royal train and follow these trends to bring out the princess in you every day.
Bonjour, monsieur, it’s Ghoomar time at Cannes
You ought to be living under a rock if you find yourself unaware of the Cannes film festival that takes place on the French Riviera annually. The Festival de Cannes is no “ordinary soiree”. It is a magnum opus that draws world-class artists, filmmakers, patrons of art, and the who’s who of the film industry.
As the glitterati of showbiz descended on the red carpet, one peculiar gentleman graced the Festival de Cannes and, with that, registered a historic moment. With his head adorned in elegant headgear, not a French beret but a ‘Safa’ (a traditional Rajasthani equivalent of a turban), was Mame Khan, a celebrated Langa folk singer from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan.
Mame Khan has been triumphant in paving the way for the folk music of Rajputana into mainstream Indian cinema.
The Coke Studio fame not only walked the red carpet but performed a folk song, “Ghoomar”, which swayed the hearts of every Rajput kid. A song that I, along with a myriad of others, grew up listening to and watching our graceful ladies twirl with beautiful and meticulous moments of hand. A view that lends insight into an expression of a decades-long form of art.
Khan graced the bougie film festival with his suavity, and with his footsteps walked the unsung folk artists from the sandy towns of Rajasthan who deserve the representation of their art on a global platform.
GHOOMAR: A HISTORY OF GRACE
Ghoomar is an art which is irrevocably braided into the culture of Rajasthan. It is mainly performed by women in the secluded confines of zenana (inner parts of the house where women live). The exquisite dance form gets its name from the Hindi word “Ghoomna” (roughly translates to a twirling or spinning movement), showing the vibrant and mesmerising colours of the “Ghaghra”, a flared long skirt worn by women in Rajasthan. It requires remarkable effort and precision to maintain an elegant and uniform twirl. An online website ranked it fourth in the competition of local dances around the world in 2013.
The end of the monarchy marked the onset of a new era, and with that followed a wave of change. The royals, left with mere titular roles, made a move from the palace to politics, the ‘Thakurs’ made a conscious effort to preserve their heritage sites to turn them into cultural havens and create a bloom of tourism, and the middle class got on with their lives. While a lot has changed in the demographics of Rajasthan, the irresistible appeal of Ghoomar has been a common cultural denominator in the state. From the elite to the common man, the love for folk-dance courses through the veins of people from all spheres of life.
While the unwavering faith of our older generation in the culture has remained intact. The sun of liberalisation has shone on the younger sections of our society, and with that has risen a newfound angst to find oneself. The dilemma of how to find the perfect middle ground between the new world and the old world creeps inside the mind. I am no stranger to this labyrinthine complexity.
However, I believe that Ghoomar is a piece of history and a wealth that we can retain and further pass on to the next generation. Just like a chiffon saree or a Poshak in our closet, given to us by our mothers or grandmothers that holds the scent of their perfume, a tale of another time. The romanticizing of chiffons, necks decked with freshwater pearls, or the charm of our very own haute couture ‘Poshaks’ will always resonate with the status quo of our youth.
THE LANGAS AND MANGANIARS
The folk dance is performed to the soothing verses sung by the musical maestros of Rajasthan, the Langas and the Manganiars. The infamous Langas and Manganiars are the rhythm of Rajasthan. The ‘Raag and Taal’, which carries on the tale of times, these musical groups are the essence of Rajputana and the heart of Rajput weddings. Their unconventional voices, coupled with the rhythmic beats of dhol and the twirling of the Gaghra of Poshak on cue, create a frame so magical that it would inspire da Vinci to ditch “The Monalisa” and paint a “Thakurani” instead.
The Langas and Manganiyars have a diverse array of folk songs for different occasions such as weddings, births, and spiritual ceremonies. The folk songs usually begin with a philosophical commentary followed by the singing of ragas, usually accompanied by various instruments such as the Dholak, Khadtal, and Algoja.
THE QUEST FOR NATIONAL PROMINENCE
Ghoomar’s national recognition has seen a significant late bloom. While the art form has seeped its roots deep into Rajasthan, the national expansion of folk dance has a long way to go.
Maharani Rajmata Govardhan Kumari of Santrampur established the “Gangaur Ghoomar Dance Academy” in 1986 to preserve the dance form. She was awarded the fourth highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, in 2007 for her laudable efforts in contributing to art and promoting the Ghoomar folk dance.
The folk dance recently took centre stage in mainstream Indian cinema with the 2019 released epic saga “Padmavat”, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and became a sensation.
The appearance of folk singer Mame Khan at the Cannes film festival and the international representation it draws paves the way for a monumental shift in the nationwide status of the dance form.
Rajasthan has birthed a culture and lineage of unsurmountable glory, grace, pomp, and pageantry. The culture continues to live in the spirit of Rajasthan. It is more than a mere fragment of bygone times. It is our identity, a part of who we are. Every person is a carrier of his or her ancestral legacy. Our culture needs us to keep it alive as much as we need it to fortify our sense of identity. So, the responsibility for the preservation of the authentic form of this divine art form falls on our shoulders.
MOHAN NIWAS PALACE IS A DELIGHT FOR LOVERS OF ARCHITECTURE AND WILDLIFE
Mohan Palace was the architectural outpouring of Raja Bhartendra Singh Ju Deo, who helmed the Panna State’s Forest and Police Department. He was overwhelmed by the United Kingdom’s Windsor Manor, where he fell in love with its architecture and decided to recreate it in the princely state of Panna.
Surrounded by forests where the majestic Bengal tiger resides, filled with the thick flora and fauna that this tribal region of Bundelkhand is known for and flanked by India’s most revered diamond mine, Panna was a princely state in colonial India. According to the accorded with 11 guns salute state, it belonged to the Bundelkhand Agency and covered an area of 1,008 villages within its borders. The state was founded in the 16th century by Chhatar Sal, who led a revolt against the Mughal Empire, establishing an alliance with the Maratha Peshwa. When he died in 1731, his kingdom was divided among his sons, with one-third of the kingdom going to his son-in-law, the Peshwa Baji Rao I.
When India gained independence, the ruler, Maharaja Mahindra Yadvendra Singh, acceded to the Government of India, and his family has remained as well-respected leaders who have always had the best interests of their people in mind.
Panna National Park is a deciduous and dry forest, home to the Bengal tiger. Among the animals found here are the Bengal tiger, Indian leopard, chital, chinkara, nilgai, Sambar deer, sloth bear, rusty-spotted cat, and Asian palm civet. The park is home to more than 200 species of birds, including the bar-headed goose, crested honey buzzard, red-headed vulture, blossom-headed parakeet, changeable hawk-eagle, and Indian vulture. A much-loved destination for wildlife enthusiasts, it is also frequented by tourists from across the globe, with the family turning many of their properties into warm home stays and cosy heritage hotels.
“Built by my forefather, Lt. Colonel Raja Bhartendra Singh Ju Deo, who was the younger brother of HH. Maharaja Yadvendra Singh Ju Deo,” says the tall, lanky, and handsome Rajkumar Prithviraj Singh of the Mohan Niwas Palace. An advocate enrolled in the Delhi Bar Council, he spends most of his time fighting pro bono cases for the tribals who reside in and around Panna. “Our family has always been considered their protectors.” These tribal people are truly marginalised and I feel most fulfilled in fighting for them in the court of law. “ Cases pertaining to their rights in land, livelihood, and against atrocities inflicted on them keep this handsome prince busy. His sisters, meanwhile, doctors Rajkumari Aditya Singh and Rajkumari Mrinalini Singh, treat the poor people of Panna for free.
Their parents meanwhile run the warm and friendly palace for tourists in quest to view the Bengal tiger. “Our parents Keshav Pratap Singh Ju Deo (Keshav Raja) and wife Divya Singh (Divya Rani) run the homestay, hosting the guests and allowing them the experience of living in a breathing castle with the royal family themselves as their hosts,” shares Prithviraj.
Mohan Palace was the architectural outpouring of Raja Bhartendra Singh Ju Deo, who helmed the Panna State’s Forest and Police Department. He was “overwhelmed by the Windsor Manor, where he fell in love with the architecture of it in the United Kingdom and decided to recreate it in the princely state of Panna,” according to an avid traveller.
The castle is surrounded by warm and generous arches and is made of the famous white sandstone Panna, which is mined. The walls are filled with a lime mix and immaculate Arabian work in the vintage style (where they used seashell to give the Arabian plaster a finishing shine as opposed to the modern marble powdered Arabian). Early morning jeep trips to the park for tiger sightings, laid-back afternoon siestas and a generous meal cooked by the chefs from the Bundelkhand royal kitchens make the stay in this quaint palace a wildlife lover’s delight.
CHATTISGARH’S TWISHA SINGH THAKUR IS A LITERARY PRODIGY
While most of us battle performance pressure around our board examinations, Chhattisgarh’s Twisha Singh Thakur goes above and beyond with her unique mettle. Just around her class X central board examinations in 2019, this wonder became India’s youngest writer of philosophical fiction. Her debut novel, titled A Carol of Him was received with much praise, and soon made it to the Amazon Top 100 philosophy bestsellers.
Twisha Singh Thakur.
“A piece of philosophical fiction, my debut novel is about the day-to-day dilemmas that we all face, like Carol.»Him» refers to two contemporary sides of a situation; the good and the bad, the white and the black, the God and the Satan. And how we often find ourselves in the middle of them, to choose either side in every turn of life, and how we, as humans, be in the grey”, Twisha elaborates. For this, the 18-year-old garnered significant critical acclaim as well as accolades for her authorial credibility.
The following year, the literary prodigy came out with her second book, titled Candour. Speaking of which, Twisha says, “Candour consists of various types and genres of poetry like sonnets and ballads, of nature, the supernatural, mysteries, courage, valour, philosophy and self-help. It is a perfect little book for everyone who wishes to tickle whatever mood they’re in, in a rhythmic and soothing way.”
News of Twisha’s inspirational authorial journey gains further significance considering the dismal state of affairs on Chattisgarh’s educational front. With a lesser literacy race, to begin with, recent census figures indicate Chattisgarh’s female literacy rates lagging behind by over 20 per cent. Given that it is this very region of skewed educational ratios that gave birth to the young writing genius is duly reassuring.
Twisha admits to having an instinctive connection with the art of writing. She reminisces over her childhood, wherein she would bail out of other activities to grant herself some writing space. In her own words, “I ponder a lot, I was a curious child, curious about the mysteries of the universe, the energies and the vibrations, the nature, complexities of humans and history.” For encouraging her to pursue her authorial dreams, Twisha gives immense credit to her family, especially her mother. “My source of inspiration for thinking, giving base to my writings is my mother, who herself recited thoughts of mysteries of the universe instead of bedtime stories to me when I was younger. And my family encouraged me to think, ponder, write”, she adds.
At present, the India Book of Records recognises Twisha to be the youngest writer of philosophical fiction in the nation, and Chattisgarh’s Chief Minister, Bhupesh Baghel too awarded the young author an eminence award. Her story comes as a breath of fresh air for all aspiring writers, thinkers, innovators and makers of social change. She concludes with an endnote that is as inspiring as herself, “I feel that it’s essential for the world to see the intellectual side of young Rajputs of India alongside their courage and valour. I am also a motivational speaker, motivating the youth with ideas of history, philosophy and essential skills like writing. Self-help, after all, is the first step towards social help.”
REGAL REMINISCENCES ON MAHARANA PRATAP JAYANTI
This year, Maharana Pratap Jayanti witnessed a unique commemoration when several royal and noble families of Rajasthan united on a common platform to pay obeisance to one of the most revered monarchs of Mewar.
The life and legend of Maharana Pratap has gained admirable distinction in the history of Rajputana for the strong display of valour and virtue against Mughal expansionism. His birth anniversary is celebrated with abundant enthusiasm and a strong flavour of patriotism at diverse venues across India. This year, Maharana Pratap Jayanti witnessed a unique commemoration when several royal and noble families of Rajasthan united on a common platform to pay obeisance to one of the most revered monarchs of Mewar. Organised by RRA, a socio-cultural association founded by the Rajput community based in the USA and Canada, this virtual event was curated by Parakram Singh Jhala and Janmejay Singh Tanwar, and graced by a distinguished panel of speakers.
Parakram Singh Jhala and Janmejay Singh Tanwar of RRA.
Maharana Pratap’s painting by Raja Ravi Varma.
Maharaj Kumar Vishvaraj Singh of Mewar commenced the event by reminiscing how his admirable ancestor surmounted great odds to secure the freedom of Mewar. “While there have been many legendary rulers in Mewar who have achievements of a very high standard to their credit, Maharana Pratap epitomises the history of my family,” said the eloquent scion of Mewar.
His address was followed by the talks of several members of other royal families. While Princess Siddhi Kumari of Bikaner expressed her joy over how the valour of Maharana Pratap is being celebrated not just within India but also in other parts of the world, H.H. Maharaja Sawai Jitendra Singh of Alwar and H.H. Maharao Vanshvardhan Singh of Bundi urged everyone to make a conscious effort to imbibe the values that he stood for and pass them on to future generations.
H.H. Maharao Ijyaraj Singh of Kota reminded everyone how Maharana Pratap’s resistance against the Mughal invasion earned him the title of India’s first freedom fighter. He also mentioned how some Rajputs still put a leaf under their dining plates and straw in their sleeping mattresses to honour his famous pledge to sleep on the ground and eat from a leaf plate till his motherland was freed.
Yuvraj Harshvardhan Singh of Dungarpur shared how his ancestor Maharawal Uday Singh I had fought alongside Maharana Pratap’s grandfather Maharana Sanga in the battle of Khanwa against Babur, and elaborated upon other historical connections between his family and the house of Mewar. H.H. Maharawal Jagmal Singh of Banswara was of the opinion that while we celebrate our heroes in all honesty and reverence, we must also understand the difference between the times they lived in and the times we live in, to truly understand and appreciate their policy decisions.
Rajrana Ghanshyam Singh of Badi Sadri, whose ancestor Jhala Maan Singh was one of the most venerated martyrs of the Battle of Haldighati, was the first among the Umraos of Mewar to pay his respects to Maharana Pratap. Umraos were the highest feudal barons in the service of the Maharana of Mewar, and the Maharana had the privilege of enjoying their unquestionable loyalty across generations.
Maharaj Dr Pushpendra Singh of Karjali, the senior-most speaker on the panel, was of the opinion that Maharana Pratap’s father Maharana Udai Singh must be credited for changing Mewar’s century-old war policy of ‘perish, but do not surrender’ to ‘neither perish, nor surrender’. He credited this changed outlook to be the prime reason for Maharana Pratap’s indomitable character.
Maharaj Ajayraj Singh of Begut threw light on the various accolades given to Maharana Pratap like ‘Veer Shiromani’ and ‘Prathah Smaraniya’, and elaborated upon the reasons behind them. Sharing how he idolised Maharana Pratap from a young age, he spoke very candidly about his childhood hero’s renunciation and sacrifice and expressed his happiness at how the narrative is finally evolving to reveal the lesser-known facts about Maharana Pratap.
Rawat Jitendra Singh of Meja said that while the term ‘equality’ holds strong significance in a modern democracy, Maharana Pratap pioneered and patronised this concept way back in time. “He promoted communal harmony by appointing Hakim Khan Sur as a General in his army. He also gave a strong social and morale boost to the Bhil tribesmen of his state by not only befriending them but also giving them the honour of serving in his forces on equal footing with the Rajputs.”
While Bhanwar Abbheraj Singh of Bansi traced his family’s lineage to Maharana Pratap’s brother Maharaj Shakti Singh, Rawat Mahesh Pratap Singh of Kotharia and Kunwar Jaivardhan Singh of Amet talked about the selfless services of their ancestors to the throne of Mewar. Thakur Himmat Singh of Ghanerao shared how his ancestors fought against the invaders to defend Kumbhalgarh—the birthplace of Maharana Pratap.
Major Maharaj Raghavraj Singh of Shivrati emphasised Maharana Pratap’s military genius and discussed how the battle of Haldighati saw one of the finest cavalry manoeuvres and a distinctive surgical strike directly on the commander of the Mughal forces.
To conclude, in his words, “Narratives may change, but facts will always reflect how Maharana Pratap’s patriotism remained unscathed and independent of any foreign rule.”
DECOLONISING MENTAL HEALTH PRACTICE WITH SAUMYA SINGH
As per Abraham Maslow’s iconic hierarchy of needs, mankind’s dilemma beyond basic needs of physiological safety opens up to a plethora of psychological needs. That is to say, surmounting material deficits and securing financial comforts open up spaces for psychological navigation and existential dilemmas. It can be argued that mental health problems are reported more widely in the more affluent strata of the world. After all, it isn’t unusual for CEOs of multimillion-dollar industries to suffer from insomnia. Or for a skyrocketing celebrity to be silently spiralling into depression? Or for privileged youngsters like you and me to have it all on the surface, while still grappling with anxiety and a sense of emptiness every once in a while. A common theme across each one of these simplistic examples is their joint accomplishment of basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchical pyramid. Often touted as ‘first world problems” by the less fortunate bottom half of the pyramid, this seemingly biassed human predicament is anything but selective. Rather, the universal sufferings generated by mental disquiet and torment grapple with our civilization with the gravity of a silent plague.
Similar to the massive gaps in mainstream healthcare across the spectrum of privilege and affluence, mental healthcare is an even more remote denominator. What does one say to popular rural practises of dealing with mild to extreme mental disturbances with clairvoyance and voodoo fixes? The relative absence of free accessibility to organised therapeutic recourse in most rural sectors further adds to the already complex problem. For the financially well-off, informed recourse is undoubtedly more accessible than it is for the rest. And yet, the disparate ways in which mental healthcare is perceived remains a ubiquitous fault line worldwide.
This rampant cross-cultural stigma vis-a-vis mental health often renders most of us hapless victims. But every once in a while, an outlier emerges out of their tribulations and takes on the systemic change that they’d wish to see in the world around them. Rajputana Collective proudly introduces Saumya Singh, an enterprising young psychologist who jointly endeavours to bridge the mental healthcare gap in privileged as well as less privileged strata of Indian societies.
Her recently-launched venture into independent counselling is known as The Talking Cure, wherein Saumya conducts hour-long sessions with working individuals between the ages of 20 and 60. During these counselling sessions, Saumya helps her clients navigate through a variety of concerns such as grief, anxiety, depression, work-related stress, and relationship issues. She introduces the multiple theories upon which her counselling approach is based. My approach to therapy is perhaps most deeply influenced by Carl Roger’s humanistic or person-centered framework, which emphasises the quality of the relationship between the therapist and client. In line with the Humanistic school, I strive to provide a space for my clients that is characterised by genuineness, empathy, positive regard, and equality. I believe that when working with clients, it is necessary to recognise their agency, dignity, and inherent capacity to grow.
I am also drawn to the post-modern therapeutic approaches, such as Narrative Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy, as they view people as social beings, identify how many problems stem from dominant but oppressive social structures and discourses, and acknowledge individual and community strengths and resources. “Relatedly, I have also extensively used Interpersonal Therapy in my work, which is a model of therapy that focuses on how fractured social relationships and support networks cause or exacerbate mental health problems,” Saumya says.
A postgraduate in Counselling Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, Saumya is preparing for her doctorate in counselling in the United Kingdom starting this September. For the time in between the two, she had started The Talking Cure to keep in touch with mental healthcare practise in the Indian context.
Saumya’s decision to opt for a career in mental healthcare stems from chance and choice in equal parts. In her own words, “I have personally struggled with emotional difficulties in my adolescence and was unable to seek the help I needed.” The culture of silence around mental health prevented me from recognising and expressing what I was going through at the time. This certainly contributed to my decision to enter the field, as I knew from first-hand experiences that mental health was an aspect of health and well-being that was insufficiently discussed and severely underserved. At the same time, I would not say that a career in mental health was always the plan, or that it came as a calling to me. I think I grew more comfortable in this role gradually, and only after I gained hands-on experience of the work during my master’s training in counselling psychology from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.”
Beyond her independent counselling venture, Saumya’s journey as a mental healthcare professional extends to the relatively underprivileged sections of society as well. Speaking of which, she introduces us to another venture she led alongside some of her peers, known as The Coping Corner. Born in times of the pandemic, this is a voluntary organisation that provides mental health counselling services to the underprivileged at no cost. Last year, during the worst period of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were successful in bringing together 8 volunteer therapists and 6 supervisors who conducted over 150 pro bono sessions. Motivated by the positive feedback we received in 2021, we are preparing to run the project this year as well. I am quite proud of the work we have done through the Coping Corner, particularly because this initiative allows me to translate my passion for accessible and culturally competent mental healthcare into action. Moreover, it is a small step towards decolonizing mental health practise by creating spaces that are accessible, collaborative, and cognizant of social realities, “she elaborates.
Returning to the opening paragraph of this feature, Saumya makes a very interesting point that largely challenges and expands the scope of the argument. She states, “Research evidence overwhelmingly suggests that poverty, stigma, and social marginalisation are all serious risk factors for mental health issues – indicating that, contrary to popular beliefs as well as Maslow’s theory, mental health issues are not first world problems/issues that only come to the surface once material and physiological needs are met. Mental health problems are consistently found to disproportionately impact the less affluent in society”.
Thus, Saumya’s two-pronged approach to broadening counselling access across India’s diverse population is indeed a trailblazer in its own right. Her story is also indicative of a wider contingent of educated youngsters broadening the scope of mental healthcare in India. Despite securing her pedagogical seat in distant lands, Saumya deliberately chooses to serve her remaining time in India as a counsellor to those in need. And for this reason amongst others, she is an inspiration to many other young aspirants across disciplines. Rajputana’s freshest advocate of accessible, culturally competent healthcare poignantly concludes, “Over time, I also became cognizant of some of the reasons for the mental health treatment gap in India, including significant social stigma, inadequate or inaccessible services, and low levels of public investment. I strongly believe that these challenges are reflective of the traditionally individualistic lens of psychology that has often neglected to take into account structural, social, and cultural factors in understanding and treating mental health issues, and has thus alienated many people in the developing world. Such learnings now motivate me to continue in this line of work and to do my bit to address the limitations I see within the field.
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