How do you preserve traditional buildings for posterity? Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur shares his success formula
Heritage structures don't come with an expiry date. At least for Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur. Having repackaged ancient landmarks into money-spinning, ritzy star hotels, he has rewritten the rules of heritage conservation in Rajasthan and is keen on encouraging the trend in other States as well.
In a day that never seems to end — he has met Chennai's Mayor, visited heritage sites in the city, given interviews and has a concert to attend — his cheeriness is intact. Though the trappings of royalty seen in picture-filled storybooks and lavishly-mounted films are missing, Gaj Singh's sartorial standards — his regal blue bandgala and shoes brought to a military shine — are reminders of refined tastes and perfection that were synonymous with monarchs who lived in golden-yellow sandstone monuments.
Heritage hotels, a trend he set rolling by converting his sprawling Umaid Bhawan Palace into a celebrity-hopping leisure destination, are his way of connecting to his past, while engaging with the present and planning for the future. “It's a workable concept with great potential. When we founded the Heritage Hotels Association of India in the early 1990s, there were only 14 members. Today, we have 170 members, with six from Tamil Nadu. Rajasthan leads the pack with 90. Structures built before 1950 with a distinct architectural style (it can be a palace or fort, house or haveli) are good enough to be converted into heritage hotels. We are talking to the State Governments about encouraging heritage tourism with special incentives, tax breaks and providing better infrastructure.”
The boy-king who had “inherited huge properties” from his father at the age of four, after he lost him to a plane crash in 1952, got interested in heritage conservation during his student days in Britain. “People have true love for tradition. It was amazing to see how the Europeans protected war-ravaged monuments. It was a big motivation. When I returned in the early 1970s, I found everything around me collapsing. It was a turbulent period with the abolition of privy purses and privileges extended to royalty. But the emotional resonance associated with royals was intact. I was moved by the reception given to me by the people of Jodhpur. I had a deep feeling of attachment and responsibility for them. Their affection gave me the courage and encouragement to start afresh and keep my head above water.”
By pioneering the heritage hotel movement, he was able to allow his parallel lives (as old-world Maharaja and new-age entrepreneur) to intersect. Monuments were tweaked to fulfil modern needs. He was able to draw a steady influx of tourists to Jodhpur. “It's easy to raze rundown monuments and raise fresh structures. But what about our pride in our past,” he asks with anguish. “Heritage hotels enrich the ethnic experience in a special way. A concerted effort by the government, planners and promoters is needed to strengthen the trend. Sensitivity to heritage conservation must be inculcated at school level. And the media can play a bigger role in highlighting what needs to be done to protect the past. It's hard to believe, but in some countries they have audio-guides and documentaries to make a single old rock come alive! That's the way they promote heritage. By repackaging heritage buildings into charming hotels, there's money for their future conservation too. It's economically viable. Hotels generate jobs, the local economy improves and ethnic crafts in the vicinity flourish. Also, it helps spread the tourist footprint to rural areas as most havelis and vernacular-style homes are located away from the cities.”
Harmony with heritage
Talk about development in harmony with heritage, and he breaks into a sardonic smile. “Conservation should be high on the government's radar. Development is not just about cement, mortar and money. I'm not opposed to flashy new structures coming up in the cities. But what worries me is the loss of heritage's endearing face. Buildings must be zoned; skylines and certain vistas need to be preserved. I've seen parks and old buildings gobbled up by the construction mafia in some cities. And sadly, it's not what the people want because these are landmarks integral to their lives.”
It's not just about buildings. “There's a lot of intangible heritage too that we are letting go in the name of modernisation. Our spoken word, our music, poetry… are all vanishing rapidly. We launched the Rajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF) to put local artists on a global platform and give them an opportunity to perform alongside top-notch musicians. Our Sufi Music Festival too has become a major draw.” And what about Bollywood tunes? “I listen to FM radio in the car and watch Hindi films while flying. My association with Bollywood stops there.”
Having specialised in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in Britain, Gaj Singh is not keen on taking the plunge into politics. “I've been on the fringes of politics by serving as an MP. But it's not in me to get into active politics because of the special relationship I share with my people. I don't want to take sides with political parties. I prefer to do social work and be involved with NGOs. It's more direct and rewarding.”
Aldous Huxley and Rudyard Kipling have celebrated the Mehrangarh Fort in their writings. Maintained by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust that's managed by Maharaja Gaj Singh II, the 1459 AD structure houses a museum exhibiting the heritage of the Rathores and Marwars. There's a display of arms, costumes, paintings, palanquins and furniture. The museum is set to be remodelled soon to make it more visitor-friendly. “The idea is to enhance the experience and walk them through this living monument without any hassle.”