The Bhagwat Prakash Mahal in the Zenana Mahal is a relatively modern addition to the 16th century Udaipur City Palace. It was built in 1939 as the special quarters of the bride of the then heir apparent, Bhagwat Singh. Today the rooms, meticulously renovated to preserve their quaint Art Deco styling, form the kernel of a specialised gallery showcasing the palace's rare collection of photographs.
This gallery, which opened on March 1, is the first step in a major conservation plan for the palace, helped along by $150,000 from the Getty Foundation, which envisages adding a children's play area, among other conveniences, for the lakhs who visit Udaipur every year.
This is not the only evidence of change. Sometime last year, the present ‘custodian’ of the Mewar dynasty Arvind Singh Mewar had ‘Eternal Mewar’ — the umbrella identity he has thought up to connect all his diverse activities from hotels, to museums, library and music room, registered as a trademark. “It’s our brand, says Mewar, using the jargon of the corporate leader that he is, considering that his HRH Group of Hotels manages a chain of 10 properties across Rajasthan.
The ‘M’ of the Eternal Mewar brand, artistically interpreted, now adorns doorstoppers, mirrors, trays, jugs and so on at Aashka, the high-end boutique that Mewar’s daughter runs inside the palace.
Royal Rajasthan is changing with the times, reinventing itself as it did once before in the 1970s, after the abolition of privy purses, when it turned over its assets to trusts to prevent the government from taking over and turned its palaces into high-end hotels. This phenomenon, which began with Udaipur’s Lake Palace Hotel and Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan Palace Hotel, has become so widespread now that there are as many as 178 heritage hotels in Rajasthan today. Clearly, the erstwhile rajas have proved very good at what Mewar calls “heritage as enterprise”.
But if the earlier attempts at reinvention looked at the physical heritage — the palaces and other treasures — the more recent attempts have focused on consolidation and making the most of the ‘immaterial’ heritage — art, photography, architecture, even music.
The Bhagwat Prakash Photo Gallery is an example of this, but there’s a similar gallery which opened recently at the Sadul Museum in Lallgarh Palace, Bikaner. “Going back to the 1840s, the photographs in our collection is perhaps the best pictorial record of the princely states,” says Rajyashree Kumari Bikaner, chairperson of the Maharaja Ganga Singhji Trust which manages the museum. “We have been collecting and cataloguing these for years, but now we decided to put it in one place,” says the princess who recently penned a coffee-tabler on the architecture and history of the palace, inspired by Earl Spencer’s Althorp: the Story of an English House. A new annex to the museum, constructed at a cost of Rs 35 lakh, is almost ready and due to open in September. “It will have better preservation and display facilities for the manuscripts and artefacts,” says Dalip Singh, coordinator, “and also improved facilities for scholars, restaurants and a museum shop.” But by far the most concerted efforts in this regard have been those initiated by Gaj Singh II, the maharajah of Jodhpur. A pioneer in the field of conservation efforts in India, the maharajah’s magnificent home, Umaid Bhavan, was the subject of a handsomely produced and imaginatively laid-out tome. “Not even Buckingham Palace…has inspired so sumptuous a book,” the blurb rightly claims. Last year, his Mehrangarh Museum Trust also started Sufi Durbar, the music festival at the Nagaur fort, a UNESCO heritage site, with the objective of attracting tourists and developing it as a “vital link in the desert triangle of Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur”.
This year, Jodhpur’s heritage outreach has notched a major highpoint — a major exhibition of the distinctive miniature paintings of Jodhpur that is now showing at the Seattle Art Museum and will travel to the British Museum in the summer before finally showing in Delhi. Fifty-six works from Jodhpur have been loaned for the exhibition which prides itself on being the first time it will be seen in the West. “We’ve designed a set of post-cards, book marks, CD boxes as merchandise for the museums to sell along with the show,” says Amrita Singh of Muse India: Heritage Concepts, a firm that has been working with the maharajah on the exhibition and other projects. To add to the things on offer at the Mehrangarh Museum Shop itself, a Palace Collection has been started which sells prints and replicas of the royal artefacts.
As the Rajasthan royals know well, everyone wants a slice of royalty.