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Glorious splendour of Marwar

Umaid Bhawan Palace... the royal residence and retreat for the tourist.

Well entrenched in their positions, they had to prepare themselves for the transition that took place in 1947. But the change that came in 1971 was cataclysmic. Though the Indian princes had decided to give up their powers and any claim to independence to join the national mainstream, they were jogging along quite comfortably till the Abolition of Privy purses shattered their well ordered existence. Shorn of titles and privileges, they had to redefine their roles in a society that suddenly seemed to have little use for them. Though their aura continued to exercise a fascination and the common people, by and large, continued to look up to them, they lost ground. The extravagant lifestyle and licentious ways of some of them became the subject matter of book and films.

Some of them adapted quickly to the changed circumstances, others drifted aimlessly sinking into a pall of lethargy, yet others floated in a world of unreality cocooned by memories of past pomp and splendour while quite a few, shell-shocked, retreated into a world of emptiness and make-believe.

How are the ex-royals in the country coping after the axe fell swiftly 30 years ago? Have they managed to relocate themselves in a vastly changed world order? How do they spend their time and how do they manage their resources? Apart from adorning the covers of celebrity magazines and featuring in the society and gossip columns, what do they engage in? Are those who have inherited vast estates and still wield considerable clout in their areas, using it to advantage or is it frittered away on property disputes and ego clashes? What is this world made of?

KAUSALYA SANTHANAM follows the ex-royal trail on a journey that connects the prominent kingdoms of the past, catching up with the heirs of these powerful houses. The first of this series of articles begins with Rajasthan — the kingdoms of Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaipur — where thanks to the ex-royals, the tourist is now king.

THE Mehrangarh Fort, a massive structure that defines the skyline and history of Jodhpur, takes you completely by surprise. Not just by its sheer size and grandeur, rising as it does to a height of 393 ft, but also because it is so spotlessly clean. Not a scrap of paper or a sheet of plastic mars its ancient premises in sharp contrast to the clutter that usually defiles our heritage sites.

If the Fort's resemblance to the castle at Edinburgh is striking, so is the maintenance which owes to the Head of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Sri Gaj Singh II, the 54-year-old heir to this ancient Marwar-Jodhpur royal house. In 1952, Gaj Singh was crowned as the 38th ruler of the Rathore dynasty founded in the 13th Century. The Marwar Rathores claim descent from Lord Rama and hence believe themselves to be "Suryavanshis".

Bapji, as Gaj Singhji is addressed fondly by family members and staff, has reinvented his role and found his own space since 1971. Making shrewd use of his education in England and his exposure to the National Trust's maintenance of stately homes in Britain, he has made Jodhpur a forerunner in Heritage Tourism.

The Mehrangarh Fort was built in 1459 A.D. by Rao Jodha, 15th in line who shifted the capital here from Mandore and who gave Jodhpur its name.

Located on the caravan route to Delhi, Central Asia and China, the city perched on the edge of the Thar Desert, grew in wealth and power. And the Marwar Rathores, the clan which founded it became the root of eight other kingdoms.

The Fort is a treasure house of priceless relics — miniatures, paintings, howdahs, palanquins and arms — all displayed with an astute eye for aesthetics and history.

Everywhere in the building, with its beautifully carved windows and ornamented glass-ceilinged rooms, one sees signs of a subtly orchestrated tourism promotion and a passion for conservation.

Across the fort, is the Umaid Bhawan Palace where Gaj Singh resides. The Umaid Bhawan, said to be the last great palace built in the country, was commissioned by his grandfather Umaid Singh to provide work for the local population during the Famine in 1929.

This magnificent building lauded as a perfect example of Art Deco, though it strikes one as incongruously European, counter balances the architecture of the Fort. Here too the artefacts are laid out with sensitive eye feel for period and ambience.

Gaj Singh II... savvy enterpreneur

Gaj Singh has retained a set of apartments for himself and his family in this sprawling red sand-stone complex (with its staggering number of rooms) while the rest of the Palace has been turned into a hotel in conjunction with the ITC group.

As I wait for the interview, Gaj Singh's great-grand aunt Baiji, fills in the details of the dynasty she is proud to belong to and a grand-nephew she obviously adores.

"Did you know," asks Baiji, "that Gaj Singh's father Hanwant Singh, a world champion in polo and a fine magician, was killed in a plane crash in 1952 when he was just 28? He had won a phenomenal victory in the Parliamentary elections. It was Hanwant Singh's father, Umaid Singh who was responsible for modernising Jodhpur (which during pre-Independence was the size of England or Belgium).

"Bapji came to the throne when he was just a boy of four," she smiles in fond reminiscence.

A uniformed retainer interrupts us deferentially to say that "His Highness" is ready to receive us. And leads the way, through the sumptuously decorated halls and corridors, to a small well-furnished living room dominated by portraits of Gaj Singh, his wife, Hemlata Rajye and their daughter and son.

Gaj Singh who enters a minute later preceded by a small dachschund sporting a winter coat, is very much and yet quite unlike your idea of a maharajah. Imposingly tall and handsome, he is the archetypal prince but without the hauteur and forbidding demeanour you associate with a royal. Gaj Singh, apparently is at peace with himself and his world. And he has reason to be.

"The homecoming I received when I returned from England in 1970 was a major event in my life," he tells you as he sips the tea which the liveried attendant brings. "Almost the entire city turned up for the huge reception. There was such an outpouring of emotion and affection that I felt the expectations were beyond my capacity to meet." But he adds, "I structured my activities to remain myself and help the people as well".

The calendar brought out by the Trust to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gaj Singh's ascension to the throne lists out the various welfare projects he, his wife and his mother are involved in — to promote girls education, health care, religious and philanthropic activities, drought relief measures and irrigation works. The Jal Bhagirathi Project with which Magsaysay award winner Rajendra Singh is associated is of special interest.

Do the ex-royals today arouse hostility or fascination?

"Depends on whom you are talking to. There is often fascination with no understanding. As for hostility, one does face it arising from a preconceived attitude."

His reaction to the film "Zubeida" reportedly based on the life of his father, is in keeping with his nature — the question does not ruffle his equanimity. "For me it's fiction; they have taken bits and pieces from life. And yes, it's a well made film," he concedes.

The memory of his grandmother's rousing speech to the electorate from behind the purdah when his mother contested in the elections is the event he recalls as the most moving in his life.

"If you have the will of the people, and if you are conscientious, you can become a rallying point and focus for discussion," he says.

"From being privileged to targeted, culturally a lot of damage was done," he says, looking back to immediate post-1971. "Anything connected with the royal family was presented in an unfair way. Income tax problems arose and acrimonious disputes in families over property. The result was the wealth of the country disappeared or was destroyed."

Clear that with what he had inherited he had no right "to sell, divide or give away", he decided on tourism. "Tourism had already come into existence in Rajasthan but linking it up with the cultural aspects was important as its essence is heritage and history."

He feels strongly that "Steps should be taken for preserving our culture and monuments. Planners, developers and the Government do not give this enough attention." Gaj Singh's contribution to tourism in Rajasthan and to heritage preservation is vouched by the positions he holds. He has been chairman of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) for four years and is convenor of the State Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

The Marudhar Hotels headed by Gaj Singh in tandem with the ITC runs a chain of palace-turned-hotels under the banner WelcomHeritage. At its summer palaces of Balsamand, Rajsamand, its hunting lodge and other resorts, the emphasis is on keeping the archaeology and atmosphere intact while ensuring the comfort of the guests.

Every means of preserving the past and yet making it profitable have been explored — with outstanding success. Ingenuity is the motto and luxury tents and desert festivals draw in the tourists by the thousand. The difference between the properties run by the Trust and the Government is best evidenced in the exquisite set of Seventh Century buildings and cenotaphs at Mandore under the RTDC's control which is in a state of heart-rending neglect.

Though he has been MP and Indian High Commissioner to the West Indies, Gaj Singh does not believe in taking the plunge into active politics for then "you have to be part of the party game. And I neither have the inclination nor the temperament for politics."

Next day, at the Mehrangarh Fort you meet an old white bearded singer seated under the sparse shade of a tree playing his ektara. As his nasal notes echo across the fort walls and the sky turns a dull orange, you feel you could well be living during the time of Rao Jodha as the ambience is so overpowering. But then the busy filming crew of Akbar Khan's TV serial "Taj Mahal" intrudes on the mind and eye with its trailing wires and lights. As you walk closer, the cardboard set of the Taj outlined against a gaudy synthetic sky sucks you into the present. The balance is restored and you are forced to admire the acumen of a man who by linking the commercial present with the romantic past has scored both as savvy entrepreneur and ex-royal.

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