Brand royalty

Amrita Gandhi is worried about compost. She’s a month-old in her new Tiruvanmiyur home and her garden’s been dug up, its dirt piled in mounds and replenished with compost. With every heave and whisper of the sea just across, the winds whip the compost’s odour right into her home, and it’s been 10 ten days. “Can you smell it? Can you smell it? Will you be okay?” she frets.

Sunk deep into her plush white sofa, safeguarded by air conditioning and resuscitated with green tea, we couldn’t be better. Save for her surname, there’s little in this quiet home that’s clue to Amrita’s lineage. The numerous Gandhi biographies on her bookshelves are overwhelmed by the hardbound volumes on India’s royalty.

From Ladakh to Thiruvananthapuram, Amrita has spent the last seven years of her life tracking the remnants of our former kings and queens for a four-season-long television show, Royal Reservations, and next week, her lifestyle guide and wanderlust diary of those days, Live Like a Maharaja, launches in Chennai.

“I’ll show you the book that first drew me into this world back in 2007,” she says and jumps up to pull out a fat tome named Royal Palaces of Gujarat, flips open to its centre and sighs. Amidst parched lands and dry fountains, lush photographs unfold in these pages of Italian architecture blending with jharokhas, dusty chandeliers, fading tapestry and wildlife carvings. “It looks like where Beauty and the Beast could have been, no? There was magic in its air. I knew I was headed here, to Wankaner, to the Ranjit Vilas Palace.”

With three weeks to put the show on air and a broad brief to simply cover the royals, Amrita dove into such books, looking for places off the tourist-ridden map, those with a soul and a story. “My first thought when we began was ‘How do I do this without being ridiculous, and without riding on clichés?’” Her answer lay in a quiet voice within that said dwelling on sheer opulence for its own sake was a spiritless endeavour. “Luxury without a story to it, I knew, was in poor taste.”

Over seven years, Amrita’s stories have spanned people and places both familiar and unknown. “At every new location, I hunted around till I found a hook that made me care, and want to tell this story.” Often it was histories of generations long past. In Udaipur, she found the legends of 10 maharanas, each with a fascinating tale to his life. From a staid oil portrait of a stern man in a permanent wink, Amrita learned of one-eyed Rana Sangha, a warrior who bore 84 battle wounds, lost an eye and one arm. His colourful descendant Sajjan Singh too died an untimely death at 26, but collected crystals to his last day, walking around bedecked head to toe.

Often, though, it was the living histories that told Amrita’s story. In Gujarat, she dined with the Nawabzadi of Balasinor, Aliya Sultana Babi, who spent her life protecting a dinosaur site beside her home. From an open courtyard grazed by goats, the villagers had unearthed for Aliya strange bones, that are today deemed the skeletons of India’s own Rajasaurus narmadensis.

In palace after palace, Amrita came to expect the unexpected, make friends with people whose private homes are now public museums and hotels, and find anecdotes that humanised the luxury. “When you spend days shooting at these places, people eventually forget you’re an outsider, let you into their lives and those are the moments of spontaneity and honesty that make your story,” says Amrita.

In Travancore, she once stumbled into a closed study with a desk open and open books on it, all untouched by time. “It was the desk of the last ruling Maharaja of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal.”

In another instance, she stepped into a bedroom where robes were laid out on the bed and chappals placed on the floor, almost in waiting for someone, but the room had been unopened for years, left just the way it was the morning the maharaja there had died.

“It was magical to see what happened to things when they’re left untouched; even so, there are places where you walk in and just respectfully walk out, never shoot.” While many of the palaces Amrita visited were seemingly stuck in time, it was their people, she says, who rarely brooded, rarely reminisced about the past. “Sure, they live in history, but questions of their relevance in our times fade away when you hear their stories.”

It is this relevance that Amrita channels into Live Like A Maharaja. “We forget that the royals who live today carry forward the cultures and traditions of their ancestors and are often experts in their respective fields,” she says. The book thus interviews princely families who’ve contemporised their homes in cities with the same touch of class that their former palaces had. Shehzadi Nighat Abedi of Rampur, for instance, lives in a Delhi apartment and hosts an intimate soiree every evening at home, and Amrita takes from her tips to set a cosy, inviting dining table of formal Western cutlery for luxury Indian dining. From Saif Ali Khan she wheedles out wardrobe secrets and from Raghavendra Rathore, commandments to wear the bandhgala. waistcoat. Recipes from Chettinad homes, Hyderabad’s Falaknuma Palace biryani, a princess’ bridal face scrub and much other wisdom peppers this book.

As much as these years have been a public documentation of contemporary princely living, they’ve been a private running into of personal history for Amrita.

As the daughter of the former Governor of West Bengal, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who is the son of Mahatma Gandhi’s fourth and youngest son, Devdas Gandhi, there’s national history in Amrita’s veins. At almost every princely home she visited, stories of the rooms Gandhi stayed in, the times he spent with their ancestors abound.

From her father’s side, history traces roots again, for C. Rajagopalachari, India’s last Governor-General, was Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s maternal grandfather, his mentor and guardian. “It was Rajaji who was instrumental in securing rights for these princely families when they merged with the Indian Union. He saw things from their point of view and these interconnecting histories between the families I was interviewing and my own were fascinating.”

Amrita’s earliest memories of acknowledging she was Gandhi’s great-granddaughter are in the Chennai home her parents began living in when she was five. A family photograph of her father, grandfather Devdas, and Gandhi, graced the dining room of every home they moved to. What she knows of Gandhi are from her father’s handed-down stories and Gandhi’s hand-written letters and from her father’s sister Tara Bhattacharjee’s memories. A contemplative silence descends when Amrita speaks of her roots. Sentences come out slower, softer. That her familial roots are so entrenched in the nation’s roots is in some sense an inheritance she has constantly been shadowed by. “I am only one of so many great-grandchildren. Everyone has a own personal relationship with their great-grandfathers, and I have mine.”

After a deep pause, she adds, “I never thought much about where my embarrassment with blatant luxury for its own sake came from, but it’s probably something I do take from Bapu. When I was asked to cover the royals, I could have said I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. Or choose to do it through my viewpoint.”

And she has. It’s among Amrita’s proudest achievements that her work has carved a niche for itself, separate from her family’s legacy. “It was always important for me to live life on my terms,” she says, “to find my own cause.”

With the release of Live Like A Maharaja, Amrita’s tryst with the royals draws to a close, and she now hopes to get back to her first love, theatre. For years a stage actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and Shakespeare and Company, Amrita found her passion for theatre as a six-year-old playacting with her neighbours. Through her time in schools across the country, she honed this skill until she took it up professionally in the States, performing both Shakespeare and locally written plays in California. “Theatre unlimits me. As much as I think it’s about me on stage, I always come back to realising it’s about the craft first. I’m an actor, who wandered into television for a few years, and now I’m trying to find my way back to the stage.”

As Chennai becomes home for Amrita once again, memories of her childhood here come flooding back. Meanwhile, her three-year-old daughter Siya is outside in the garden making her own memories of this city. For now, Mahatma Gandhi’s great-great-granddaughter is quite happy with the compost.

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 4:12:45 AM |

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