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Why Korean royal family is celebrating the bhoomi pujan in Ayodhya

Anshu Khanna

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Raja Bimlendra Pratap Singh of Ayodhya.

When the Babri Masjid episode happened nearly three decades ago, it was the elegant royal family of Ayodhya that took the statue of Shri Ram into its palace temple. On 5 August 2020 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, no doubt, Raja Bimlendra Pratap Singh, being one of the members of the Ram Janmabhoomi foundation, was excited.

 The history of the royalty of Ayodhya is very old. The current Ayodhya dynasty is associated with the lineage of King Darshan Singh. Bimalendra Mohan Pratap is the eldest son of the Mishra dynasty.

However, the Ayodhya family has a unique connection with the royal family of South Korea. Some 2,000 years ago, Ayodhya’s princess sailed to Kaya kingdom, now Kimhae city in South Korea. She fell in love with its ruler, Kim Suro, and they got married.

Keeping this historical connection in mind, Bimlendraji was invited to Korea. He recalls, “In 1999 the then Prime Minister, John Pilkin, invited me to Korea. I told him that the princess was of the earlier dynasty. But since my family was the titular heads of the state in 1947, I was invited to Korea and their delegation came to Ayodhya and constructed a shrine by the Saryu river in the memory of their princess who was the founder of the Kim dynasty.”

 In the South Korean literature, Ayodhya is referred to as Ayuta. The Korean text, Samguk Yusa, authored by the monk Iryon, mentions the temple city’s Korean connection. Hence as the foundation stone of the Ram temple was laid in Ayodhya on 5 August, echoes of the celebration must have been heard in Korea as well.

Royally Speaking

The royal muse

Anshu Khanna

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Poise, elegance and grace define the royals of India and The Daily Guardian presents a rare collection of images that were shot just before the pandemic in Hyderabad during a Royal Fables exposition that rekindle the Princely aura. 

The heritage platform joined hands with Kishandas & Co, an acclaimed heritage house of jewels, who amongst all its accomplishments, was historically the chosen jeweller to the Nizams. Tall and handsome, Nawab Kazim Ali Khan of Rampur, does poetic justice to their rare Basra string and emerald kantha, which he wears over a stunning achkan in petit point by Mehraab. Meanwhile the three beautiful princesses look stunning in the understated saris by heritage designer Juhi Shah and the opulent, state of the art ornaments by Kishandas. 

While Princess Manjari Mishra of Ayodhya and Princess Vaishnavi Kumari of Kishangarh combine ruby red saris with stunning jadaus lined with emerald drops, Princess Maanvi Kumari of Jobat looks stunning in a lavender saris by Juhi Shah. A collective of Indian silhouettes that define opulence and elegance, the shoot celebrates regal dressing with a mélange of meticulous craftsmanship and mesmerising play of colours. While Juhi is known for her mastery over classic and timeless pieces that spell bridal bliss, Kishandas is known to create royal, regal jewels that bring the Nizam era alive.

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Mayurbhanj Chhau: Revival of a dance form by those forbidden to practice it

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It is not uncommon to drive by the east Indian countryside with lush green fields and hear the resounding drumming beats of the Dhumsa, Dhol, Mandal, Chadchadi, alongside the piercing lyrical melodies of the Shahanai and Vamsi. The intermingling of these percussion and clarinet-esque instruments takes one back to the cries of war heard in battlefields. It would therefore explain the formations and drills with clanging swords and shields which one witness accompanying this music. Except for all these ‘soldiers’ in battle-ready positions performing these acrobatic stunts are women.

 Long-held as a martial arts folk dance which was only acceptable to train and groom men in due to the physical strength and endurance training needed. Recent years with a steady decline of willing participants, lack of infrastructure and funds, and a general brain drain from villages to urban areas have seen a sharp rise in girls rising to the occasion in saving this endangered dance form. Most of the women come from agrarian rural pockets of the district of Mayurbhanj and are first-generation students of the dance which for over 300 years had royal patronage from the erstwhile royal family of the state taught only to select families by Ustaads and revered Gurus. 

Mayurbhanj is the largest district of Odisha and one of its most populous situated in the north of Odisha bordering Jharkhand and Bengal. The district was ruled by the Bhanja dynasty since 697 AD and the family was known amongst other things for its keen interest in promoting art and architecture with a significant interest in developing and promoting the dance form known as Chhau. It is interesting to note, the emblem of the family and later on the state continues to be the graceful and rhythmic peacock. 

There are three recognized styles of Chhau: Seraikella from the state of Jharkhand, Purulia from West Bengal, and Mayurbhanj from Odisha. It is a semi-classical Indian dance with martial, tribal, and folk traditions, with origins in one belt of eastern India. The one stark difference being that Mayurbhanj does not use the elaborate masks adorned by dances from Seraikella and Purulia. The dance ranges from celebrating martial arts, acrobatics, and athletics performed in festive themes of folk dance, to a structured dance with religious themes found in Shaivism, Shaktism, and Vaishnavism. 

Like most of India’s artistic traditions, Chhau suffers from a lack of documentation to ascertain its roots and more importantly to gauge how old the dance is. Likewise, the origin of the name “Chhau” is also a subject of debate among scholars. According to some, the word “chhau” comes from “chhauni”, meaning “the cantonment”, which stresses the martial arts background of the dance and its connections with the paikas—soldiers, who might have staged dance performances to celebrate their victory on a battlefield. Some believe that it comes from the word “chhai” or “chhatak” while others derive it from the word “chaya” meaning “shadow”. Mayurbhanj Chhau is famous for its martial art exercises known as Parikhanda(“pari” meaning shield and “khanda” meaning sword), which are supposed to prepare the body for the actual dance.

 The dance technique is based on chaalis and topkas—stylised walks choreographed after a keen observation of nature, e.g. baagh chaali (tiger walk), mayoor chaali (peacock walk), khel—variations of swordplay, and ufli—thirty-six movements describing everyday activities. Though Mayurbhanj chhau has been a male-dominated dance due to its martial arts roots, the royal family including the Maharani’s were greatly involved in the overall development of Mayurbhanj chhau. They not only took entire artist villages into patronage but invited visiting dignitaries for performances and sent dancers to prominent platforms to gain global recognition for their talent. A way to keep the tradition alive apart was to dedicate a season for it with an annual function spread across Chaitra Parva (April) but also of more interest was the competition between two competing schools by HH Maharaja Krushna Chandra Bhanjdeo in the 1800s to develop a sense of competition among the artistes, he named Uttar Sahi as the Sahi of Maharani and Dakhin Sahi as the Sahi of Maharaja. It is for this reason that the dance items of Uttar Sahi are female-centric, like Matrupuja , Mahisamardini, Tamudia Krushna etc. 

Each school was groomed and their patronage was directly under the Queen or King with mammoth-sized performances held in the Chhau Padia or field with the entire state invited to watch in the center of the capital town, Baripada. In 1912 HH Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanja Deo took a special interest in promoting Mayurbhanj Chhau. He and his brother Routrai Saheb and cousin Bada Lal Saheb created a war dance with sixty-four dancers as an homage to the Paika rebellion called the war dance. 

This choreography was presented in Calcutta in front of the British King George V and Queen Mary, a magnificent spectacle covered by the visiting foreign press at the time.

 Mayurbhanj Chhau drew women participants around the 1950s and 60s with women of aristocratic families and from the families of Guru’s themselves closing the gender gap by playing the female part. In more recent years several global women performers, Sharon Lowen and Padmashree Ileana Citaristi among them managed to create a niche for themselves and become successful performers of this dance form. Mayurbhanj Chhau also drew the attention of contemporary dancers, such as Subhashree Nayak who began the nonprofit organisation Project Chhauni to promote this dying art form supported by the present royal family. 

It was only with the determination of a few of the training institutes and vision of the old gurus that the art began to take a grassroots level prominence once again in the lush green state of Mayurbhanj, hence it was celebrated with much pomp and splendour with the beating of drums and shrill echoes of the shahnahi across the town and in The Belgadia Palace when in 2010 the Chhau dance was finally inscribed in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

Akshita M. Bhanj Deo is director of The Belgadia Palace, and Communication Strategist at Wadhwani Al. 

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Riding the white elephant: Huber’s odyssey with Safed Haathi

Robert Huber and Safed Haathi became synonymous with one another, unitedly forming a cult of their own and became the sole chronologer for contemporary India’s nobility.

Urvashi Singh Khimsar

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If one pictures the dreamers who voyaged into India through the hippie trail, the last image to muster is that of an erstwhile German noble rattling across the Afghani frontiers on a magic bus. But such were the likes of Robert Huber, who made an overland trip to India in 1978 in solidarity with the flower power revolution. An unassuming entrant into India’s kaleidoscope, his distinct photographic style enamoured many native aristocrats and over time, their families embraced this free-spirited wanderer as their own.

 One fine evening in Dalhousie, a couple of neat pegs and tobacco puffs triggered Robert into a rumination of sorts.  As the owner of a brand-new white TATA Sumo, he pensively mediated the idea of traversing through the magnificent subcontinent on this beast like a wading white elephant. And in that tiny moment of eureka, Robert baptised his fourwheeled cruiser as Safed Haathi. The following day, he sought a painter to anoint the name on the vehicle’s front fender in the Devanagari script. 

Over the course of their 1,73,000 kilometres-long odyssey across Nepal, Burma & every Indian state, Robert and Safed Haathi became synonymous with one another, unitedly forming a cult of their own. During this time, Safed Haathi rose to become the sole chronologer for contemporary India’s nobility, with a photographic documentation of portraiture, landscapes, ceremonies and architecture at an unprecedented scale. His ongoing chronicling of India’s nobility and North Eastern tribes earns Robert Huber a legendary status in his own right, and I personally consider Safed Haathi to be Rajputana’s very own Steve McCurry.

 Two reasons dominate my conviction. 

One, most of us would agree that photography is increasingly surpassing its conventional limits, and that in present times, anyone can call himself or herself a photographer. In a world that is saturated with photographers and content creators, Safed Haathi’s distinction as an age-old chronicler of royal Indian heritage gains paramountcy. 

Right from the very start, Robert consciously averted the conventional path of exclusively documenting renowned destinations of princely India. Instead, he delved into the remotest pockets of India to unearth the bygone eras’ most precious gems. His white elephant had trampled over the dense thickets of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Tripura and Odisha well before the discerning traveller could trace them on his/her map. Moreover, not only did he disavow the typical white man’s Oriental fascination, but infused his artistic flare into each one of his captured frames. Whether one considers his older compositions or his more recent work, they are all held together by a timelessly captivating force that renders modern-day montages into ghastly pallor. 

Two, Safed Haathi remained subaltern in its approach and style. Which is to say that not only did Robert shy away from commercialising his documentation pursuits, but even after all these years, the veteran confesses about being constantly cash-strapped for the better part of his journey. In his own words, “The Safed Haathi project was about travelling to every state of India in the same car and photographing this vehicle over seven years at the most stunning places of India. I am not a commercial person by nature and thus, I might never be able to exploit the brand name fully. It’s more of a passion cultivated into a hobby.” His penchant to revisit a legacy that Prussia had forsaken back in 1918 caused him to stir away from the tide, and there are very few rivals to artistic expression that is unfettered by mercantile conventions. Robert’s rare gift of identifying potential destinations, sometimes even well before their own custodians or archaeologists, often translates his photographic pilgrimage into an act of service to travellers, historians, archaeologists, artists and explorers all over the world. 

The fated departure of Robert’s TATA Sumo after 7.5 loyal years of service took place due to a mechanical failure in Sayla en route to Dungarpur. Soon after the palace mechanic at Udai Bilas declared the vehicle’s demise, a grieving Robert placed it in Harshwardhan Singhji’s iconic automobile museum, the Dungarpur Mews. Even today, one will find Robert’s daring expeditions with Safed Haathi showcased, not through common tropes or souvenirs, but on the vehicle’s densely scribbled rear fender. When seen from up close, these scribbles made for a diverse array of vernaculars that spelt out Safed Haathi. In other words, Robert took back hand-inscribed typographies by the numerous indigenous communities that he interacted with and documented from the three nations.

 He laments the absolute lack of initiative on TATA’s part, but soon with the help of his friend Pradip Singhji of Gamph, found himself sponsored by Mahindra. Just within a week, Safed Haathi was resurrected as a Scorpio 4×4 SUV, and the legacy was carried forth by a changed machine that beats with a near identical pulse as its original incarnate. As its journey with Robert continues, the duo continues to produce spectacular visual testimonies to the respective households that opened their doors to them. 

Come the most advanced equipment and techniques, it takes Robert’s offbeat approach to dare to capture bygone glories in bejewelled canine portraitures, eastern martial arts and wide angle personality shots of present-day Rajputs. Most recently, he has launched an aerial photography project using a DJI Phantom 2 Vision + drone, which he affectionately refers to as the White Eagle. I will let the aerial shots do their talking while signing off with a fair speculation that the day might not be far when Steve McCurry finds flattery in being titled South Asia’s very own Safed Haathi! 

The writer is an author, blogger and editor-in-chief of Rajputana Collective.

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Lockdown portraits documenting feminine energy

Urvashi Singh Khimsar

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When the national lockdown to battle Covid-19 was announced, I was pursuing my photography diploma in Delhi. I wouldn’t complain about the extent to which the pandemic derailed my life, because I am aware of most other people having it far worse for themselves.

On the contrary, my privilege enabled me to sit amidst the cozy confines of my ancestral home in Khimsar for most of the summer. Unlike my fellow students, who jostled for creative assignment submissions in limited urban setups, I worked around my fashion photography module with a plethora of picturesque locations and sporting family members that made for highly suave models. In hindsight, my photographic knowhow seems to have documented only a tiny fragment of their full potential. That said, this rare circumstantial opportunity formed a turning point for me.

With a grateful heart, I proudly present my humble collection of lockdown portraits that I directed and executed under the guidance of my mentor, Arpit Tyagi. The overriding theme across this body of work is a tribute to Shakti— the feminine energy that resides within each one of us. A vital source of our in- tuition, empathy, strength and resilience, the feminine energy finds traditional resemblances to the Earth as the sole provider of life.

The current pandemic has provided a juncture of intense existentialist questioning for humankind over the role we play as terrestrial beings. Our skewed equation with our ecosphere has been rightly perceived by many as a deliberate flaw that precedes us. Whether or not it will outlive us is a question that leaves itself open to individual and communal choice.

These musings have since long dominated my sensibility and hence, I discerned the need to artistically document the feminine energy through a series of portraits. I consider it to be my personal bid to my viewership to re- examine a fundamental part of their spiritual mechanism and channelise that towards healing and nurturing the very source of their existence.

The author is a writer, blogger and Editor-in-Chief of Rajputana Collective.

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The young royal dedicated to the heritage of Jaipur

Sannjna Sharma

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Taking online classes for her senior year while watching the majestic sunsets in City Palace, Jaipur—in lieu of sitting in front of Washington Square Park between class breaks—is now the life of Princess Gauravi Kumari, daughter of Princess Diya Kumari of Jaipur. Practising social distancing, our conversation over a digital platform was rather tech-led, all thanks to the pandemic. Since it was over a call, it was not accompanied with the warm welcome I had received from Gauravi Kumari when I had met her at her Delhi residence.

“I was looking forward to my final year in NYU and I had always imagined spending my senior year in New York,” shares the 21-year- old who is majoring in Media and Communication with a minor in Fashion Business. However, with a positive outlook towards life, Gauravi hopes to be physically in New York to receive her undergraduate degree.

It was over time that she discovered her love for visiting museums, exhibitions and events. In fact, she thanks her mother, who is her hero and whom she worships for cultivating her taste in art. Princess Diya Kumari, a sitting MP from Rajasmand, has worked really hard to not just keep the family heritage alive but also used the rich craft of Jaipur as a means to create employment for rural women in Sawai Madhopur and Rajsamand through her NGO, Princess Diya Kumari Foundation (PDKF).

Gauravi reminisces, “While growing up, I always looked up to mother who dedicated her life to her political position, family business and the three of us, and never missed out on any one of these by making sure that she gave equal time to all three.”

From 2013, Gauravi witnessed an influence of politics in her environment after her mother had a glori- ous win in her first election, which resulted in Princess Diya Kumari becoming a sitting MLA from Sawai Madhopur. On being asked if she would ever follow in the footsteps of her mother into politics, she says, “Being in politics definitely gives you a voice to express and it is a great medium to help the people of your country. At the moment, I haven’t given joining politics a thought but I would like to contribute in whatever way i can.”

Since March, Gauravi has been dedicated to working with the talented women at PDKF. “I want to create a brand for the foundation and have a store in the City Palace where the amazing work done by the ladies can be displayed.” Through the learning she has had from her degree, she wants to “give back to society and make use of one of the biggest platforms at the moment – social media – to deliver the message”.

She has an elder brother, His Highness Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur, and a younger brother, His Highness Maharaja Lakshraj Prakash of Sirmaur. Reminiscing about her childhood, she says how she and her younger brother would go to the Rajmahal with their grandfather, His Late Highness Brigadier Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh Ji of Jaipur, to spend time with him and swim. It was one of the most memorable times of her life since those were the last few years she spent with her grandfather.
Her grandmother, Her Highness Rajmata Saheba Padmini Devi of Jaipur, celebrates all the festivals like Holi and Teej among others. These celebrations have united their family with the people of Jaipur and
strengthened their bonds with them and other well- wishers.

With the busy polo schedule of her elder brother, the school life of her younger brother and her life in New York, it was only during holi- days that the three could be with each other—which is why the lockdown at the City Palace has witnessed the siblings spending time together, mostly in the company of their grandmother and watching movies together. “Staying at home during the lockdown has its ups and downs but I have been trying to stay busy by reading, baking and working out.”

Sannjna is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in media and communication at O.P Jindal Global University. In 2017, she wrote under the column Chronicles of Baby Baisa Diaries for the Royal Fables blog.

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The art of living with art

Just like different colours on the same palette, Digvijay Singh and Nidhi Sah wear many hats to cherish their love for art, design and creativity together.

Anshu Khanna

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It is an interesting tale of two design aficionados from Uttarakhand, who grew up in Nainital as school pals, travelled to distant Gujarat to study art and design, and then found themselves falling in love and pledging a life together. The one thing binding them forever being art and its various forms of expression.

Digvijay Singh, whose mother hailed from the princely state of Awagarh, and whose father belonged to a landed farming family from Kiccha, Uttar Pradesh, is a fine artist, chef, designer and hotelier. His wife, the petite and pretty Nidhi Sah, from a hotelier background, is a book designer who has worked with both Indian and globally acclaimed publishers. A graphic design graduate from NID, Nidhi and Digvijay, while pursuing their own paths in life, come together to create a unique brand—BBG Royals that, with its own sense of vintage iconography is emerging as the quaintest of regal stories. Its very design journey adds to its uniqueness.

Digvijay, a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Baroda and a Postgraduate in Textile Design from NID, sketches beautiful art on textiles which Nidhi translates into vivid digital prints on stunning chiffon saris, statuesque scarves, sharp cravats and regal pocket squares. Beading, crystal work and em- broidery emerging more as detailing than the real story. “It is a bit of our life thrown in… the trophies that graced our mother’s home in Awagarh, the picturesque nature both of us grew up in and a palette that is pastel and bold,” shares Nidhi. A BBG royal is sure to be found in every royal’s wardrobe, given the generous use of wild life, flora and fauna as well as architectural motifs as its main design bastion. It brings back the visual appeal of Manchester florals with a twist.

A book designer, Nidhi shares that while many of her books have won awards and critical acclaim, the mother in her is most excited about their son, Divymaan, who works under the pseudonym ‘The Art Baba’, being selected as one of the 34 winners of the global illustration competition by J.K. Rowling for her next book Ickabog. She smiles and says, “Over 18,000 children sent in their entries and Divymaan was the only Indian child to be selected. He will not just win a money prize but also receive a signed copy with his illustration from the author herself.”

Digvijay, meanwhile, also holds forth with his men’s wear label under his own signature. A Lakme Gen
Next Designer in 2007 and a finalist for the young entrepreneur of the year by the British Council and Elle magazine, he was nominated for the best costume designer for the movie (Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster) at the Producer’s Guild Apsara Awards. He dresses various A-list, Bollywood celebrities like Anil Kapoor, Jimmy Shergill, etc. Pat in the midst of a pandemic, we meet the duo at their ethereal hotel/homestay The Nest Cottages in Pangot, a bird sanctuary and a nature enriched reserve that is perched at the end of Nainital with only large stretches of pine forests flanking it. Their retreat, a motley set of stunning cottages run by their dynamic father faces green mountains full of rare birds.

What started as a holiday home is now run as a retreat by their father who came to Nainital in the 1950s, wooed his wife, the Princess of Awagarh, and continued to live in this picturesque lake town. And in the Singh kitchen what cooks is the finest spread of ‘Kumaoni khana’. This writer was treated to a princely fare starting with Gabba (made with locally grown leaves jarak, uggal that are skilfully wrapped and then fried crisp) and Badeel (savoury cutlets made with lentils) and the main course started with Thatwani (a local lentil preparation that almost felt like a soup), Aloo Gutka (dry potatoes sauteed in mustard oil and coriander seeds), Shikaar Bhaat (mutton curry served with rice), Baant (pahadi kadi), Kakdi ka Raita (a cucumber and curd preparation tempered in mustard seeds) and Bhangey ki chutney.

Digvijay shares, “The hill people of Kumaon have trained themselves to eat the herbs, leaves and flow- ers that easily grow around them.” And bhangey ki chutney is a concoction made from the cannabis leaves and grows feely in the hills!

Indeed a stupendous chef, he started a conceptual movement called Dilda White—a culmination of art and design. “The movement explores and questions boundaries with art, fashion and food performances, art experimentation camps (Dilda white and the Water Mountain), textile sculptures, wearable art and theatrical performances.” And as Dilda White, Digvijay emerges before a table of guests, his face covered in a mask. He invites the guests to discover his cuisine through its aromas and also spend time dabbling in the local art tradition of rangoli painting or the tribal frescoes that define every door of a Kumaon home. Like they say for some art is a profession, for this family it’s a way of life.

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