HT Brunch Cover Story: Princesses of power
Princess Akshita M Bhanj Deo, 28, is caught in transit between Kolkata and Mayurbhanj, Odisha, en route to her family’s Belgadia Palace—a former royal guesthouse and home to the Maharaja Praveen Chandra Bhanj Deo of Mayurbhanj and Maharani Rashmi Rajya Laxmi Bhanj Deo of Mayurbhanj (Princess of Jaisalmer) that hosted luminaries such as the Tagores and JN Tata in the late 1800s.
Her sister, Princess Mrinalika M Bhanj Deo, 30, is already at Belgadia and joins us on call from the Victorian era colonnaded palace.
It was Mrinalika who, fresh from a stint in New York City working for a third-gen perfume label (which owns the Carolina Herrera brand), decided to turn the property that sits on 20 acres into an 11-room boutique hotel in 2015, a process that took two and a half years of restoration.
Akshita is a social entrepreneur working in an AI non-profit, astute storyteller, crafts revivalist, neo-influencer and would-be author all rolled into one, while Mrinalika is a yoga teacher, hospitality maven, fashionista and co-founder of a crafts label with her younger sister.
“We’ve just added two more rooms that are specially abled-friendly,” says Akshita. “I’m also putting indigenous flora into our landscaping—great for agri-tourism and sustainable farming.”
In the genes
The Bard-educated Askhita speaks quickly, punctuated with the inflections of an international education (after a few years at La Martiniere, Kolkata, she went to Singapore to finish high school). Mrinalika is equally eloquent; a graduate of the University of Virginia, she’s done a month-long yoga retreat in Bali and was conducting in-person classes before the pandemic hit. She even ran two eponymous yoga studios in Kolkata, where the family has a home.
Like true millennials, the princesses have their heart set on bettering the world. Akshita doesn’t see herself as an influencer, but as an entrepreneur whose team is set to do revolutionary work. “Understanding how brands function—the storytelling aspect—is why someone buys a product,” says Mrinalika.
Akshita’s work with public policy and international affairs came naturally after graduation (her mother founded a school for street children and her father is in politics), when she worked with refugees while on an international rescue committee. But this sense of justice for the less fortunate runs in her blood.
“We grew up with stories about my ancestors, so there are strains of what they planted as seeds,” she says. Her great-grandfather’s younger step-brother, Maharaja Sriram Chandra and Maharani Sucharu Devi’s son, was a fighter pilot for British India, who worked with refugees from the Middle East. “His plane crashed in Cuttack in 1945 while fighting the Japanese,” says Akshita.
Akshita has recently discovered that her grandfather’s younger brother’s second wife, Asha Bhanj Deo, wrote bestselling Raj-era romance novels under the pseudonym Rebecca Ryman.
“I would love to do a book or podcast on discovering these lesser known stories from princely India, which showcase the culture and resilience of unique individuals who contributed to weaving the fabric of modern India,” she says.
Similarly, Mrinalika discovered her grandfather Maharaja Pradeep Chandra Bhanj Deo’s sketchbook and used it as a base for her restoration work on Belgadia. “I was also inspired by my father’s mother from Nepal (King Tribhuvan’s daughter), who did up Belgadia when there were no architects,” she says.
Currently, the sisters are neck deep with Hasa Atelier, the luxury handicraft brand they co-founded, where they sell bags made of woven sabai grass often paired with dokra (metalwork by Odisha’s tribal communities).
“We are contributing to our ancestors’ vision of building sustainable communities; women have gone from making a few thousand rupees a month to making close to a few lakhs weaving Sabai grass into beautiful products,” says Akshita. The princesses are lobbying for a GI tag for the Sabai grass which, it is said, was brought back from Madagascar by one of the princesses’ ancestors.
With her father as a public figure, Akshita would prefer to be away from the public eye—after all, she revelled in the anonymity of New York City, enjoying theatre, modelling, and forming her own identity. “It doesn’t mean anything to have more likes, followers, and media mentions,” she says. “If it comes organically, fine, but it’s okay to take a back seat and let your work speak for itself.”
She’s recently made her Instagram private to focus on her work. “I want to build a community—and not have people have access to my private life,” she says.
Mrinalika also uses Instagram to build her community. “I put up photos of things that I like doing, things that make me happy. My yoga journey is definitely something I like to talk about as it helped me tremendously and hope it does the same for others. My account reflects who I am and sometimes I show what a day in my life looks like.”
21st century royals
“We have a rath yatra where the king sweeps the floor,” says Mrinalika. “My father does this even today, in front of the entire town, when the rath is pulled. These rituals bind us as a family. You are not a king without your people. The minute you disassociate yourself from your community you become irrelevant.”
European aristocrats have followings in the hundreds of thousands on Instagram—is this a similar trend in India? “The fascination stems from the political stability and continuity that royalty brings,” says Akshita. “Royals are mirrors of society—there’s a standard to uphold, but there’s a danger of it becoming a golden cage.”
Akshita says it’s time to look beyond maharajas as portrayed through the prism of a Cartier or a Rolls-Royce and to balance their personas with individualty and a responsibility to give back to the communities they come from.
“What I like about shows like The Crown is that royal families are shown to be vulnerable. This is how we live and earn our money; and we speak on mental health, climate change and gender equality, and ally with LGBTQIA, among other things. We have contemporary relevance to society,” she says.
Adds Mrinalika, “Although we don’t have a monarchy in India, the philanthropy of our ancestors’ and their institutuion-building activities have left us with a lot of respect and love in our state. People believe our family has the network and access to be able to be an agent of social change.”
Akshita likens the royals in India today as a modern-day Chamber of Princes. “Each family is its own brand with its own specialty,” she says. “Each is known for a few things, such as the cuisine of the Sailana family, heritage restoration by Maharawal Chaitanya Singh of Jaisalmer, and museum expertise from Maharani Priya Raje Scindia from Gwalior. We help each other as professionals today, extending our partnerships in the corporate world to the ties that we have.”
Priya Kumari Rana is a Delhi-based lifestyle journalist who has worked with publications like Harper’s Bazaar and Outlook.
From HT Brunch, September 26, 2021
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