Women stood up for themselves in the progressive Baroda Dynasty

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SAMARJITSINH GAEKWAD is the current head of the Gaekwad dynasty, an industrialist, ardent golfer, cricket enthusiast who has played for Baroda in the Ranji trophy and runs a cricket academy.

RADHIKA GAEKWAD is a public speaker, a heritage conservationist, a history narrator, a textile revivalist and director of the CDSR foundation.

PD. Your dynasty has shaped Vadodara. How do you maintain your relationship with the people and city?  

SG. While growing up, I went to boarding school very early. For me to get out of this estate, to get out of this palace, to be in a school where everybody was equal, everybody had the same opportunity, looking back that was a great footing for me. I’ve great memories of school where I made a lot of good friends and continue to be great friends now. Also, I got a lot of exposure early in life. I think otherwise the way we are brought up or maybe the way the earlier generation was brought up, they did get a lot of exposure, but it was still a very controlled environment.  

Fast forwarding, I came back, and I played a lot of cricket at the junior level for Vadodara and was contemplating making that into a career. So, I came back to Vadodara in my college days, which allowed me to play cricket. I got to a point where I did realise that I had to make a choice between playing or studying further. So, I decided to stop playing cricket and pursue studies.  

But while playing cricket, I met a lot of people in Vadodara because I played cricket. My experience was that I played against boys of all strata. At that time, there was not much money in cricket. So, we were pretty normal people. 

My father was in politics, he was a member of parliament for 10 years. My uncle before that, was closely connected with the University of Baroda. My mother too carried that on and is the chancellor of the university. And we had the hospital which Radhika continues to be associated with. All these things afforded us a lot of opportunity to interact with various people. And of course, we’ve lived here. We made that effort to get involved with people.   

As a family, we had our share of family disputes and these were all challenging times. When I meet people now, they give me a lot of credit for settling a long family feud that we had for two and a half decades. We were probably the first family to witness something like that. I guess things like that all wove into – somewhere you get credit for it. People look at all this positively. People want the family to be there, they want the family to be involved in the city life. They look at us as ambassadors of Baroda and probably to find solutions to the issues that Vadodara has.  

This is due largely to Sayajirao, who ruled for a very long time and in that length of rule he was able to accomplish and achieve a lot of things. He was an incredible man by any yardstick. The respect comes because of that. There’s nothing else.

RG. I give full credit to the generation before. There is such a bond from the beginning the maharaja and the family have had with the people. My father-in-law travelled a lot. He was an MP twice and moved in and out of Delhi but he made Vadodara his home. Unlike in other places, especially in smaller towns the maharaja would move out and live in say Delhi or Mumbai. Whereas somehow there has always been that bond connecting with the people. We are not in politics. That is very important. We are not in politics and we have no such importance in the city. But it’s just based on the love of the people. There is nothing for them to gain or for us to gain. Many royal families are today in politics. So the equation is different where you are in connection with people for different reasons. But in our case, there is none of that to be gained. There is none of that dynamic. It is purely out of the love and affection that the people and we have for each other. For a function or a pooja or a shop opening, they always do think of involving us.   

Also, we have the Ganpati which comes every year and is a big occasion for us in our house. At that time, we even open the gates for locals. For those few days the locals can come in to the palace and see the palace and do the darshan of the Ganpati.

PD. Laxmi Vilas Palace is the largest private residence in India and in the top 50 in the world. You’ve opened sections to the public. I know many people who have visited the palace talk about its unique architectural features. Could you share some highlights of the palace and your plans for it?  

RG. The palace is built in the Indo-Saracenic style, which is an Indo-Islamic style. It’s built of locally sourced sandstone. It had two principal architects. The original architect was Major Charles Mant, who passed away during the making of the palace. It was completed by Sir Robert Chisholm. The palace was originally built for only two people. It looks very grand, and it is very grand – it’s a beautiful home. But it’s not very practical. We have just a couple of guest rooms. There’s always a joke in the family – we have such a big space but not enough living spaces. We have four courtyards; we have very large public spaces, but this was only for the maharaja and the maharani. It’s beautiful because it’s a lovely amalgamation of stone work, woodwork, stained glass, art and the courtyards in the center just bring in the nature element as well. It’s a perfect blend of art and nature. A lovely place to live.

I did have a very sentimental value for the entrance of the palace – that’s my first impression of being in this house. I’d not been there before my wedding, so this is the impression I carry. I’d not seen any photos, and there was no Google or coffee table books! My parents didn’t show me anything. They didn’t want that to be the determining factor for me to marry my husband. I knew the importance of Baroda state, but I did not really know what the palace looked like. 

SG. I’ve always wanted the palace made into a hotel because I’ve travelled to a lot of other places and I’ve seen the benefits it brought about for those palaces. Laxmi Vilas is now a 130 plus years property. It is built for a certain time, in a certain era. It’s outlived that now. There are times when you feel it is too large a space. I think the logical way for Laxmi Vilas Palace is to become a great destination. I’d actually done a whole banquet which was a start – a way for me to get a feel of hospitality. I haven’t done the rooms, although I’ve built a golf course around it. That was the first thing I did. So, the golf course surrounds the palace and it’s become a postcard locale for people to come there and take pictures. Then there’s a museum on the estate. We get close to two lakh visitors a year.

From an estate that was very challenging to manage now you’ve got a whole lot of activities going on which brings in revenue, which employs people, which has allowed everybody to come and experience the palace.
The only last bit that is left now is to make it into a hotel which for various reasons I haven’t been able to do it. But that certainly is there on our mind.

It’s just a question of sustaining something like that. Let’s see the way forward. I’d love to make an 18-hole course. It’s a unique property and there are challenges. There are opportunities and challenges. You have issues like the COVID etc which really put the hospitality industry in the dumps, so these are challenges one has to take on.  

PD. Is the upkeep of the palace a challenge?  

SG. I’ve done a lot of structural repairs. I have also done a lot of work. We’ve had a lot of issues, like water seepage after the earthquake. Its slow work. It doesn’t work like a normal construction site. If you’ve got to dismantle something, you open it up, then suddenly figure that instead of two things we have five things to attend to. Then we need people with skill sets to understand and work on these buildings. So, a year-long job took about two years. And we didn’t want to push it because the job had to be done properly. Those are challenges. But I guess for any activity and work that you wish to do, some things will happen.

PD. The palace has wonderful historical assets such as jewels. Can you elaborate on how are they preserved?  

SG. All the systems that were done earlier, when the palace was built, were all very methodical. But there was much more manpower then, and there were more functions and occasions when something like jewellery was used. Of course, it evolved. We don’t use all that now much, but it’s a challenge for us to keep the arts. Let’s say you need to restore a painting – that’s a challenge. Over the last 15-20 years, when my father was alive, we’ve been able to engage good people to restore a lot of different artifacts. Laxmi Vilas has a lot of artifacts. It is one building in India that has a maximum number of stained glass. There are so much carvings everywhere. The Durbar hall has so many things. We’ve restored the chandeliers of the hall through a very experienced French lighting and chandelier expert.  

In terms of the quantum of detail, it’s just incredible architecture. I wonder how on earth could they have built something like this in 12 years without computers, without the communication, without the transportation you now have. This was built in 1889-90. It’s quite awesome that they could put this together.

The rooms don’t give you an idea of the space because there are courtyards. My office washroom is a very tiny room – about 3×3 and you have a Durbar hall which is about 7000 sq feet. So just to say the number of rooms is one number. It doesn’t give you in terms of the area. You see the ceiling height – it’s incredible – there are 20-22 feet high ceilings. Every time you walk up a floor, it’s actually walking three floors up! 

PD. May we know the story behind the 128-carat Star of the South diamond that formed a part of the pendant of the maharaja? You also spoke of the seven-strand pearl necklace and the Baroda pearl carpet.  

RG. All of these pieces were procured by Maharaja Khanderao who was the predecessor of Sayajirao. Maharaja Khanderao was one of the most important jewellery collectors in the world at that time. He reigned for 12 years. But he amassed this fabulous collection, including the ones you mention. He had an eye for these things. He also commissioned a silver canon, a bullock cart, and he was succeeded by his younger brother for a short spell. He in turn was also a big collector. He collected certain gems, and he commissioned the gold carriage and the gold cannon. Between the two brothers, the treasury was completely taken care of. Thereafter maharaja Sayajirao came in and brought in a completely different aspect to the state of Baroda. He focused more on state building, administration, progress of the people. He actually sold certain pieces of jewellery to put in for his museum building and state building. So, a completely different aspect of ruling came in. And he patronised art.  

PD. What was the idea behind the museum within the property?  

SG. I did not set up this museum. This museum was set up out of a private school building which was made for my father and his sisters and brother. When the Indian states merged and my grandparents said what’s the point to run the school, for some time nothing was happening there. But my uncle Fatehsinghrao, who passed away in ‘88, and was the last recognized ruler, he’s the one who got an expert and from the various palaces got the artifacts which were there. He put them together and got things going. And Radhika has been taking a great deal of interest.  She is studying them, researching on them in great detail.

PD. It’s so good you’ve been digitising the assets of the palace.  

RG. We’ve been doing it for the last four years and I think it’s going to take as much time. Digitising the palace is so difficult – not like digitising a library or a museum because we are living in it. The bed needs to be digitised, but you’re sleeping on it every night! So, everything is very much in use in the palace, so to document them is difficult. And there are works in multiple media. It’s not only ceramic or glass or woodwork, every room has so much of everything. That is really a daunting task. But it’s very exciting.  

PD.  Maratha queens have been very dynamic women throughout history. How do you relate to them in terms of values?  

RG. Very interesting question. I think everyone who is in any ways a strong persona or a woman of today would be able to relate to them. They really stood up for themselves. They stood up for family values, for their culture. They were multifaceted women. They ruled, they fought wars; they were really in the forefront. I think the beauty of Maratha culture was that women were given their due. When we look at Baroda as a state, the fact that Baroda was a progressive state was because the maharaja gave an ear to the women in his house. It was a pro women society, a pro-women administration because I think he was obviously listening to what the women in the house were saying and the women in the house had a voice. They were travelling; they were interacting, in the case of maharini Chimnabai, she cast away the purdah very early on; she authored a book on the status of women in India and we’re talking of early 1900s. This is unprecedented by any standards. When we look at the beautiful brocades of Raja Ravi Verma, the portraits are beautiful but we don’t realise that they are maharanis being painted. It is in itself such a beautiful aspect because nowhere else really in the royal families in India, did they see the royal women as material for portraiture. It was always the maharajas, and the women were in purdah. So that itself very subtly shows how strong the Maratha women were. 

PD. One of India’s very famous artist Raja Ravi Verma had a very special bond with your family and did a lot of unique works for Laxmi Vilas Palace. Could you share insights into that relationship?  

RG. In 1881, at the investiture of maharaja Sayajirao, Ravi Verma came in. He was invited to paint the investiture. Just a year before that, he had won the gold medal for painting as an artist. Maharaja was familiar with his work, and he invited Ravi Varma to come and do the painting. Thereafter he did a lot of family portraits. There were two family commissions. All in all, he was here in Baroda for 14 years. There was also a studio built for him which is still there. We are restoring it now in the palace estate.  

When he came, he had brought one painting as a portfolio. He was inspired by this palace. He drew a lot of inspiration from say the stain glass which had been done in the palace, or the carving in the palace, the brocade work in the palace. So, there was this beautiful exchange which happened between Lukshmi Vilas Palace and the artist, and this was when we start seeing his mythological work. Before he was a portrait artist. But he was hugely popular for his mythological work, and that came with Baroda. He was commissioned 14 works, which were mythological works. At that time, he was paid some 500 to maximum 1000 rupees per painting, but it was a tremendous amount of money in those times.  

The maharaja sent out the artist work for exposure. This is how the artist gained fame. Just being an artist painting for the royal family, he would have been like any other royal artist. There were many artists who made their name travelling from state to state and painting for the royal families. Because at that time there were no industrialists, the main patrons of art were the royal families. In Ravi Verma’s case, because he struck a friendship with Baroda, Baroda became the chief lending agency. That’s how fame came to Ravi Verma. 

Interestingly, in Baroda itself, like in the Durbar hall, all the Ravi Verma paintings were put on display. And it’s not happened before and after. Now we have a concept of a museum but for a private patron to allow the general public to come in and see the work done by an artist – this was the kind of impetus given to art and the artist which is what contributed to the fame of Ravi Verma.  

When we started the printing press in 1902, it was the state money for the printing press that also came as a gift from maharaja Sayajirao. So the association in the arts is far more than has been explored or researched. And of course, some of the best works that the artist has done have been for the family.   

SG. Ravi Verma was commissioned here. He was brought here to create art for the Laxmi Vilas Palace. He travelled from here, he grew in stature as an artist because he came here. We are renovating his studio that he had in the estate. Radhika and I had gone to Kerala four or five years ago. We saw he had built a section for maharaja Sayajirao to come there. But Ravi Verma passed away before that.

PD. Radhika, your passion for the arts is very well known. How much of your love for arts comes from your parents?  

RG. It absolutely starts there because my mother was an artist, my nana was an artist. She studied in Benaras in the university. So, I grew up around art. We travelled a lot within the country and outside. My father is an academician and we are all art lovers. I remember I used to visit museums as a child. It was not something I would enjoy – going to every museum in India. But I realise today that exposure is what builds your tastes and your interests. I think that’s where my love comes from.  

I was just cleaning up in this pandemic and I was pulling out all my diaries from school and college. There are so many pictures I’d cut out from magazines and souvenirs and cards from around the world. So many of those works I actually see every day in this palace.  

I’m not born in this house, but I’m obviously attached to it for so many years. But at the same time, I have a global way of looking at these objects. They’re not just something in my room. I see the value of it from how much money I spent around the world in tickets to see them in the museum. I absolutely value it. It has a lot to do with my exposure and I trained myself. So, over the years being in this house, because I’ve done my masters in Indian history, it’s always my academic interest to learn more in the spaces I did not have knowledge. Like museology is a technical study. I’ve done courses, I’ve attended workshops that would be of help to me, tutored myself, trained myself to be able to understand what kind of care these objects require.  

PD. You’ve provided the much-needed support to revive and keep alive the traditional textile industry such as the Chanderi. I’d love to know your work in reviving the textile industry.  

RG. I am a Rajput and come from Gujarat. I grew up with a lot of textiles. Also, I was in Madhya Pradesh because my father is an IAS officer and he was posted in Bhopal. So, I was introduced to the Maheshwari and the Chanderis. But those were the standard ones. When I got married and came to Baroda, the fabrics I was gifted in my wedding by my mother-in-law, or what I saw everyone in the house wearing, or in the trunks that were there – they were of a totally different calibre. In the beginning I didn’t even identify them as Chanderis because the fabric was so different, the motifs were so complex. It was like I was re-introducing myself to a totally new textile. 

My mother-in-law is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about textile. She’s retained this beautiful collection of textiles from generations. I did not have the knowledge about the Chanderi. That’s something I learnt from her and over the years tried to educate myself on it. She had tried to reengage with these artisans because she herself was from Gwalior and the Chanderi weaving center was not far from Gwalior. So she would go down there, especially at the time of her daughter’s wedding. That’s when she realised that originals are not available anymore. Post my marriage, we decided to take this on. We were initially ordering only for our family – three or four. We realised it was not enough to keep the art alive – these one-off orders. So, we started ordering a few more to see if people would identify and be interested in them. There was never a very good response. We were even selling them from Taj Khazana.  

Our thing was to revive them to the way that they were. We would never call ourselves designers. A designer would be able to put in their own input and create something new. Honestly, I don’t have a background, I’m not so creative. I’m not a designer. But I’m true to what the textile was and I would like that back – of course with a few changes in the colours or teaming it with a blouse or how you tied it. That’s different, and I do that a lot myself to individualise it. 

PD. There is a trend of younger generations in craftsmen’s families moving to other professions. How do you think we can preserve crafts in such an environment?   

RG. One cannot prevent people from moving if they are dissatisfied. It’s going to happen. We can’t look down on them and say you shouldn’t be, unless you really look at why they are moving and improve those situations. Unfortunately, the younger generation of artisans and craftsmen are not taking up these professions. And that’s because we are not giving them the pride of profession. That respect is not being given to the art or the craftsmen. Until that situation is changed, the families will not want to continue. 

We also have to make the education of the skill of that craft accessible to all. In many streams, the artisan doesn’t want the skill shared. Even with the Patola in Gujarat, there are only eight families who do it and they are the Salvis. They won’t even teach it to their daughters, so the son-in-law’s family won’t start making it. 

You already have the Geographical Indication that this is from a certain place, which is fine. But unless you train others, you cannot hold on to these crafts. I understand they take great pride in it and they should be given that importance and prominence. But to keep a craft alive, you can’t restrict it down to just those eight families and only those sons. It becomes very rigid like that. Somehow, we need to be able to document these crafts and art and give it that flexibility where other people can draw from it as well. Without taking anything of yours – your credibility, your prestige, all your worth.  

Our crafts are not been documented, it’s all through word of mouth that these things are taught. When we lose a craft, we lose a big part of our culture in that way. I think documenting needs to become key.  

PD. What do you think of the effort both at private and government level to take traditional crafts to the global forum.  

RG. It is the only way forward. Patronage earlier was with the royal families. Now that is not possible. And it’s not possible for the government to be taking care of everything. So, the private sector maybe should look at it with a fresh set of eyes. Everything doesn’t have to be exactly the way it has been for so many years. We need to make things relevant because today families are shrinking; the houses are shrinking; the fashions are changing every two months. You have to be able to reinvent the purpose of the content and make it relevant today. That’s where corporate and public partnership comes in and can help with a way forward. 

PD. Samarjitsinh, would you share some details about your latest real estate ventures?

SG. We have this hospital on a plot of land that was a part of the palace estate – part of the 700 acres and it got carved out because of the road that went. I’ve done real estate projects in Bombay but this is the first one I’m doing here. I started in Dec 2018 this is commercial and retail project and construction size is almost half a million sq feet.

PD. Would you say tax laws are friendly to estates like yours?  

SG. Oh Yes! In 1971 my uncle was the highest taxpayer in India with a cumulative tax total of 102%. That was when privy purses were abolished. But now when you compare that and this, it’s absolutely heaven and earth of a difference.    

India can be still smart and make tax laws more competitive and less, for more people to come into the tax fold. Government needs money to run – that’s fine. I find the GST has been good. It is far easier.  

PD. You’ve been passionate about sports. At what age did you develop a liking for sports and how did you become so good at it.  

SG. I was introduced to cricket because there is so much cricket in my family. I used to watch the matches with my grandmother, who was also a great cricket enthusiast. So, I got introduced to cricket and badminton early. When I went to school, I got introduced to soccer, hockey and other sports. I excelled in sports in school. And I came back and pursued cricket. It was only after I stopped playing cricket, that I was introduced to golf. I loved the sport, and I went further and built the course. 

I’d love to make our course an international destination. Just 3 years I back built four tennis courts which are exact replicas of the Australian open surfaces. They are just top-class facilities. The built-in court is about hundred years old and built with wonderful specs. It’s part of the golf club that I run and people just love the surface and the facility built hundred years ago. The takeaway is that you build something well, it just lasts forever. 

It was 700 acres originally, but the estate has now got fractioned off, because roads have come. Our family has got the larger chunk, which is about 550 acres and other family members have got their share of the estate. It’s still the lungs of the city and pretty much fills the landmark of the city. The property actually divides the east and the west of the city. 

PD. What are your views on gender equality and how do you think influential people like you would help in this movement?  

RG. It begins with how you raise your kids. If children see their mother standing up for themselves and holding their own, that is what I think they will learn to imbibe. It’s ok to teach boys about it, but if they have seen their mother taking a beating from their father, they are going to expect the same from their wives and their daughters. 

It’s not only high class or low class, this is something every woman can do. Every woman can stand up for herself to hold her dignity and stand up for her daughter. If a woman in her own quiet way can do that, from any strata, a message will go down. Otherwise we are relegating gender equality to some celebrity who has to think about it on TV, or some government to put in some laws and we completely relinquish any responsibility at our own personal level.  

PD. With all that you are involved in, how do you strike a balance between your public and your family life?  

RG. It’s always clear, family always comes first and in the pockets that I can, I see the public aspects. But honestly, I keep the public to very minimal. I try and be there for causes that I really support and I feel for. Otherwise you get spent as a person if you go for every public event you get invited to. It leaves you with very little productive time and time for family.  Because, like I said we are not in the political world, it is my prerogative to say yes or no to certain events. 

I do try and balance it with certain things I enjoy. I like the challenge of being able to research or study or put up a paper on certain aspects.  

When I speak it’s a challenge for me, I’m very nervous and I get sleepless nights. I work very hard for it. Yes, I enjoy the whole exercise of keeping myself mentally agile.  

SG. I do try and plan my daughters’ schedules first. Of course, I see them in the morning and sometimes drop them to school. But during the day, I get busy and meet them in the evening. This lockdown has been different entirely. They’ve been at home and have been doing online classes. It’s been challenging to keep them busy.