Rebel Princess With a Cause
Armed with a degree in Politics and Human Rights from Bard College, working as a consultant with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) non-profit and using her ancestors' jewel-like palace in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, as a springboard of hospitality and creativity impacting lives of marginalised local communities, 27-year-old Princess Akshita M. Bhanj Deo of Mayurbhanj is a role model for her generation of erstwhile royals.
She is also doubling up as a Director of Belgadia Palace, her family home in Baripada, Mayurbhanj district. The "Wes Anderson-esque" Palace (picture the candy-coloured palette of his film, The Grand Budapest Hotel), which she describes as perfectly symmetrical and sitting on 20 acres, is done up in sorbet pastel colours, with nostalgic touches and quaint memorabilia. But it's the history of Belgadia Palace - one of three that belonged to the Mayurbhanj royals, the first donated to the Bengal government (it became a vocational institute in Kolkata) and the second in Shillong that became India's only IIM in the North-East - that speaks of a love story so great that it became one of Akshita's biggest inspirations.
In the late 19th century, Akshita's ancestor, the rebellious and pioneering Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanj Deo, fell in love with Sucharu Devi (daughter of leader of Bengal Renaissance Keshab Chandra Sen, a Brahmo), when he was just 18, but could not marry her due to family opposition. He went on to marry the Princess of Porahat (in Bihar), and had two sons and a daughter, but sadly, the Maharani and her daughter died of smallpox. So Maharaja Sriram Chandra travelled the world, during which he met a Parsi gentleman called J.N. Tata and invited him to Mayurbhanj to start India's first iron ore and steel mine (Jamshedpur used to be a part of Mayurbhanj district). At a party in Calcutta, he met his first love Sucharu Devi, married her and brought her to Mayurbhanj as his Maharani, building Belgadia Palace for her. "It's a major love story similar to Wallis Simpson and King Edward," says Akshita. "I pieced together this story as I was restoring their diary - with handwritten letters."
Maharaja Sriram Chandra gave away all the properties to the government but held on to this one. "J.N. Tata stayed here; Rabindranath Tagore's family visited," says Akshita. "This was a guesthouse. It was more of a Downton Abbey than a palace with a darbar; it teemed with poets and historians, almost like in a Fitzgerald novel. Each room mimics that history, with a vinyl record player, an antique vase or heirloom pieces - all reflecting the people who lived there." She says in its heyday in the 1910s, the palace was filled with progressive men and women interested in art and restoring it - Maharani Sucharu Devi was, after all, the head of the All India Bengal Women's Federation. She and her sister Suniti Devi (who married the Maharaja of Cooch Behar) were known for their sense of dressing.
"She spoke for gender equality and opportunities, inviting people like Annie Besant to speak on the Irish Freedom Struggle - imagine to have that then," says Akshita. "Maharaja Sriram and Maharani Sucharu thought of democratic ideals, gender equality, with females having the same opportunity - that was feminism before the word feminism was invented, before the suffragettes. To me, they were very inspiring." During their reign, the number of schools in the princely state rose three-fold, and they modelled Mayurbhanj much like a "smart city" - with water supply, sanitation, quality health indicators, ambulances, patronising of artists and marginalised communities like Adivasis taken care of.
Growing up in Kolkata, where she excelled in equestrian sports - she would go riding at The Tollygunge Club - she moved to Singapore at the age of 13 to attend the United World College of South East Asia and then to the East Coast of the US to attend Bard. "I was always interested in dance and theatre, and got roped into politics, with focus on media and conflict studies. Communication and storytelling are my forte," she says. She worked with Syrian refugees for International Rescue Committee in New York City (founded by Albert Einstein), under former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, the CEO. "My focus moved to International Development as I wanted to understand how one can create social impact," she says.
After returning to India in 2016, and after a stint at PR firm Edelman in Mumbai, she joined as a communications strategist for non-profit research institute Wadhwani AI, using "AI for international good and solve the world's biggest problems," as she puts it.
Fast forward to 2020. Akshita wants to give Belgadia Palace its former purpose, not only as a place for visitors but also for artists in residence, a place that nurtures the communities around it.
"Tourism shouldn't just be about tourists coming here and leaving," she says. She wants to use tourism responsibly, as a means to supplement income of local communities. She says her family did not open the 10-room property (which is four hours by road from both Kolkata airport and Bhubaneswar) to only sell rooms but also for people to share their experience with the community. "As soon as we started our foundation and trust, my sister and I wanted to ensure that if guests wanted, they could spend time, money and skills on dying arts like Dhokra (a tribal metal craft) and Chhau (originally a tribal, martial dance originating in forests of Mayurbhanj), or incubating community programmes (such as grassroots collectives that make handmade handicrafts)."
Each year, a percentage of funds go back to community organisations. that Akshita has tied up with. She and her family have helped them market their products. They even had guests volunteer for help in cyclone-hit areas. They have a boutique that sells dhokra artefacts, but more than that, they like to take guests directly to Adivasi villages so that they can buy dhokra products from artisans themselves. Akshita says she also helps deliver bulk orders and acts as a marketing link for the communities.
Akshita also runs an arts residency programme at Belgadia Palace. Just as the royals patronised arts like Mayurbhanj Chhau, she is inviting artists to stay at the palace for a minimal fee and interact with local communities to create a body of work, which is then showcased or sold. "We had a photographer from Punjab, Vaydehi Khandelwal, and two from New Zealand on a grant from the New Zealand government to compare Maori culture with Santal tribal culture," says Akshita. "We want to make sure Adivasi artists with years of experience are seen as mentors to the art resident. We want to make sure Adivasi voices are heard through Belgadia, and this is reflected in our decor as well. We hired locally, we sourced locally, and there are sustainability pointers we follow to reduce our carbon footprint."
And making the best of free time during the pandemic, the athletic Akshita is turning to the dance of the region that her ancestors once patronised - the Mayurbhanj Chhau - which was at one time only allowed to be practiced by men. She describes her personal style as "androgynous sartorial with a bit of avant-garde", where she mixes men's and women's pieces, or combines, say a sari with a bomber jacket and wear that with sneakers.
This rebellious choice of clothes spills into Akshita's opinion on marriage.
I ask, how will this princess find her prince? "It may be risque to say this," she says, "But in these LGBTQ times, a partner can be a prince or a princess. If you look at old royal photos, the women look so fierce, they spoke through their clothes. For today's young royals, their legacy won't be about their choice of partner but carving out their choice from the past. That's why I am inspired by Sucharu Devi and Maharaja Sriram Chandra; they saw themselves as being compatible partners on a different level - to make a better society. I want to be able to build legacies with someone whose aspirations match mine."
Akshita says she's happy that most young royals are looking ahead rather than at the past. "There's a generational shift about the way people are meeting each other now," she says. "More young royals are meeting in boardrooms than at a debutante ball!"
The Royal Restorer
She is using technology to make Bhavnagar's -- and the ancient city of Sihor's -- fascinating heritage accessible to the public.
Rajkumari Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil has been quietly cataloguing artworks, manuscripts, letters, registers, books, and even furniture - all digitally, for posterity, and for scholars of history - at her palace in Bhavnagar. A descendant of Maharaja Raol Thakore Sahib Takhtsinhji Jaswantsinhji Sahib of Bhavnagar, the love for heritage runs in her blood. Maharaja Takhtsinhji was the first to establish a railway line connecting Bhavnagar in southern Gujarat to the rest of British India in the latter part of the 1800s. He was also the first to put up Asia's largest water filtration plant. A regular visitor at the exhibitions of the Bombay Art Society, Maharaja Takhtsinhji got British artist John Griffiths to come to create a memorial - the Ganga Teri - for his late wife the Maharani, in Bhavnagar.
"The ornate carvings, the sheer scale of the structure, and seeing my family crest intricately placed on the jaali windows made me fall in love with this monument," says Brijeshwari. She herself worked at the Piramal Art Gallery in Mumbai full time, before moving permanently to Bhavnagar a few of years ago. She is currently a consultant there.
It's while working on the archives at the Piramal Art Foundation in Mumbai that Brijeshwari, who is in her mid-20s, started using the Collector Systems - a cloud-based management system for collectors of art, jewellery, books. "I realised we have so much in Bhavnagar, and there is not much in place - for our catalogues, registers and books - and we've not moved ahead with the digital era," she says. "From when a painting was last restored, to its valuation and insurance, everything was scattered. We have books, manuscripts, and correspondence that give a clear understanding of not only our family history, but that of the city." The royal family even gives a scholarship every year for those studying Indian texts and paintings at the Cambridge University.
With a BA in Archaeology and History of Art from Nottingham University, UK, as well as a master's in Heritage Conservation and Management from Durham University, UK, Brijeshwari is also the founder of the Bhavnagar Heritage Preservation Society. She has organised heritage walks, site visits, oral history readings, before introducing it as a club in schools, as an extra-curricular activity. Ten schools are currently on board. With storytelling, photography, and poetry competitions by Bhavnagar Lake, trips to the Railway Museum and cleaning drives, she hopes to make residents aware of their heritage amidst all the development the city was going through. During the lockdown, Brijeshwari worked on digitally scanning the various artefacts - crockery, furniture, two Raja Ravi Varmas and works by Griffiths -at the Nilambag Palace in Bhavnagar (now a heritage hotel - the royal family lives next door, in an adjoining villa).
And now, with the help of the 12 founding members of the Preservation Society, and more than a 100 people working there, Brijeshwari is busy with her soon-to-be-launched Bhavnagar Heritage website. "From all the digital work I am doing, the architecture and artefacts from the palace, I can put a lot of it in the website, so that it's available for scholars or anyone who just wishes to research or read," she says. The website will also include crafts such as copper - and kansa-making and the craft of making pataras (treasure chests).
Brijeshwari, along with her parents and brother, Yuvraj Sahib Jaiveerraj Singh Gohil of Bhavnagar, is also involved in the running of the Nilambag Palace hotel. Forty-five minutes from the hotel is the original Darbar Garh, where the royal family once stayed, in the city of Sihor. With tall, ornate buildings reminiscent of old European towns, the Darbar Garh is over 400 years old, and has stunning frescoes and wooden carvings in the Kathiawari style. "That has been my restoration project since I returned from my undergrad studies," says Brijeshwari. She divided it into six areas, beginning with the general landscaping, and is now working on strengthening the structure of the main building. She maintains that for her projects, there hasn't been any outside financing. "For the hotel, it's with our maintenance budget that we do restoration work like stone and wood cleaning," she says. "For Darbar Garh, we've had to put in money and are planning it in phases." She hopes to present the town of Sihor as a destination for experiential tourism. "You have copper and brass craft happening, with artisans creating utensils and vessels in an open area, so visitors can see them being made. It's like a living museum," she adds.
The Shooting Star
The trap-shooting champion with a slew of medals is gunning for a career as an actor, starting with an acting course in New York City.
He's currently busy helping his parents and interacting with guests at their five-suite Shri Joraver Vilas - the royal villa built in 1926, and now a heritage hotel, at Santrampur, Gujarat. Next April, 22-year-old Yuvraj Vrishankaditya Parmar of Santrampur will join the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. "I always wanted to be an actor," says the shooting champion. "I've been in India my whole life, and I want to get out for a bit, to get more exposure. You can do trap shooting even at 60, there's no age limit - it's a mentally demanding sport, and there is a physical aspect to it, but I've even seen 75-year-olds at the range." Vrishankaditya has excelled at trap shooting since he was a teen, having been ranked 5th in the Trap Shooting (Junior) Nationals in 2014, earning a Team Silver Medal at the 13th Asian Championship in Kuwait in 2015, and getting three Bronze Medals at the 2018 Nationals in Jaipur, among a host of accolades.
For now, Vrishankaditya is "done with shooting" and has his crosshairs trained on the Big Apple, for a two-year course in method acting. It was a decision encouraged by his paternal grandmother, who was a close friend of legendary actress Asha Parekh. "She thought I should become an actor, and made me watch Bollywood movie after movie," says Vrishankaditya. "I'm a performer and have been putting up shows and skits since I was little, so acting was always at the back of my mind. I just didn't think of it as a serious career option until I turned 16." He took up theatre in Doon School, where he regularly performed in in-house musical competitions, before relocating to Delhi for higher studies.
He made it to the national junior shooting team in 2015 and won his first silver medal at 17. He won for three years in the (Under 21) junior team, travelling to Porbetto, Italy in 2017 for the Junior World Cup, Schul, Germany (where he came 8th worldwide), and Malta in 2018, for the Senior World Cup. "It was my dream to go to the Olympics," says Vrishankaditya. "Now I just want to be an actor."
Vrishankaditya wants to try his luck at acting in the US, followed by a stint in Mumbai, doing "the whole struggling bit" as he says, and finding his way as an actor. But he knows that his roots are at Santrampur, and he will return to the seat of his royal ancestors, from a family whose history dates back to 1055 (Santrampur was established by Rana Sant in 1256) - one of India's oldest surviving royal families.
Vrishankaditya credits his father Maharana Paranjayaditya Sinh Ji Parmar as being a role model and cheerleader to him when it came to sports "My shooting career is dedicated to him; he was always at the range, in a way living his shooting career through me." The Maharana has also inculcated in his son the knowledge of culture and history. "My grandfather, His Highness Maharana Krishna Kumar Sinh Ji, donated his land for hospitals, temples, and schools in Santrampur. My father was an MLA and did a lot for the people of Santrampur. I'm not in governance, so one of my goals is to make a welfare trust for the people of my town."
And what about his maternal grandfather, veteran Congress politician Raja Digvijay Singh ji of Raghogarh? "I lived with him for two years in Delhi while I was attending Vasant Valley school," says Vrishankaditya. "I learned time and people management from him. Moreover, he never forgets a face or a name."
Vrishankaditya is also a collector of miniature toy cars. "It's a collection that spans three generations," he says proudly. From his grandfather he inherited Dinky cars, from his father, his Matchbox series, and he has his own Hot Wheels cars from the 2000s that are difficult to find now.
"I've got them cleaned and restored, and they sit in my room presently," he says of the valuable collection. Vrishankaditya also has a fondness for guns (which is no surprise considering his love for shooting) - his favourite among them being The Purdey Pair by James Purdey and Sons, London, a highly valuable set that was made to order for his great-grandfather Maharana Pravin Sinh Ji.
Prince of the Himalayas
He has his heart set on development work at the United Nations. With a lineage that dates back thousands of years, he's getting set to fight corruption.
Tika Ambikeshwar Katoch of Kangra-Lambagraon is a young man with grand plans. The tall, well-spoken lad who is currently on a forced sabbatical from Loughborough University in the UK where he was supposed to go back for the final year of his degree in Politics and Economics is now hunkered down at home with parents Tika Aishwarya Katoch and Tikarani Shailja Katoch. "I am taking a gap year," says Ambikeshwar. "I plan to do my Master's in Politics, MBA in Digital Marketing, and maybe, an MPhil or a PhD in Environmental Governance." It's only then that he plans to return to India. "The more I go through life, the more I want to do things," says Ambikeshwar, who counts The Dalai Lama as one of his biggest inspirations (he was one of the youngest people to have worked for His Holiness' office).
Ambikeshwar, whose ancestors from the Himalayan kingdom of Kangra (in Himachal Pradesh) have been mentioned in the Mahabharata, grew up in Delhi and is a seasoned cricketer and shooter. "I used to play for Loughborough Outwoods Cricket Club in the UK until last year," he says of what would be considered state-level cricket in India. "I had county selectors come and watch me play, but the day I was going for my tryout, I fell over the boundary rope and messed up my back." Not wanting to take a chance with his back, his parents benched his cricketing ambition for that year. "I have this knack of getting injured during cricket. With shooting being my main sport, this hinders my performance if there are injuries to my wrist or fingers," he says.
Right now, he's setting sights on the Indian national shooting team. "In 2017, I represented India at the International Junior Shotgun Cup in Finland, where shooters chosen by coaches are allowed to go at their own cost and represent the country," he says. He didn't perform well but says it was a great learning experience. Now, with his Perazzi over/under shotgun in hand, he's ready to be coached by shotgun ace Vikram Chopra once venues open up for training.
He used to visit Kangra every year when he lived in the UK. "In summer, I would go to Dharamshala to visit my grandparents (his maternal grandmother is Congress politician Rani Chandresh Kumari Katoch, Princess of Jodhpur) at Clouds End Villa (their royal residence, now a heritage hotel), but this year we are stuck in Delhi," he says. Kangra Fort, the erstwhile seat of the Katoch royal dynasty is a government-protected monument housing a private museum - Maharaja Sansar Chand Museum - displaying Kangra miniatures and royal armoury. "I've always been in touch with the museum's goings-on," he says. The curation of the museum began when he was 12 years old. "If you listen to the audio guide, there's a child's voice that comes on, talking about a video game with my ancestor in it," says Ambikeshwar. The mystery of this perplexing sentence is soon resolved as he mentions that Microsoft's Age of Empires game featured a character based on Ambikeshwar's ancestor Maharaja Sansar Chand of Kangra. "I thought that was something cool I could be part of," says Ambikeshwar. "The video game makers must have done the right research, as our family lineage goes all the way up to the Mahabharata."
For him, being a descendant of this dynasty is a matter of pride. "With power comes responsibility," he quotes the line popularised by Stan Lee's Spider Man. "A royal family has the power to influence people, so I don't consider my heritage a weight, but something that motivates me." And what would he like to do for Kangra? "My father has done every possible thing to revive art and so on. I would love to build on that. " He's aiming his sights on a job in development or environment at the United Nations.
Unlike many erstwhile royals who have entered politics, that is not something that Ambikeshwar envisages for himself. "It is administration that gets me going," he says. He has just been inducted as the head of the State Chief Investigation Delhi, of the National Anti-Corruption and Operation Committee of India, part of the NITI Aayog that fights corruption. "My father always taught me to build a pyramid to my goal - that way I know what I have achieved and what is left. Life halted with the planning of my pyramid, and now I have to play catch up and head to the UK once the pandemic recedes." But until then, this superbike fan has to contend with a brand-new toy. He's just picked up a black and silver Kawasaki Ninja motorbike. "I finally got my parents to agree, after 21 years of convincing!" he laughs. "It's the bike that Tom Cruise made famous in Top Gun. My model has a similar look, but sharper and more powerful," he says.
The author is a Delhi-based writer