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Portrait Of The Maharaja as an Artist
Text by Maria Louis and Photographs by Ankur Chaturvedi
Published: Volume 15, Issue 5, May, 2007
Experimenting with different forms of expression, Ranjitsinh Gaekwad is not just another aristocratic patron of art, he is a consummate artist too. On the eve of his exhibition of drawings, paintings and sculpture presented by Priyasri Art Gallery in Mumbai this month, Maria Louis visits Vadodara for a colourful brush with royalty.
A Verve Exclusive

Peacocks strut majestically and birds chirp melodiously as dusk descends on the expansive 600-acre-plus grounds of the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara, cloaking the stately Indo-Saracenic edifice with the glow of the setting sun. We have arrived at the end of a hectic day spent with Maharaja Ranjitsinh Gaekwad in his spectacular surroundings - driving in the searing heat from his office at Kirti Towers and adjoining cultural centre (christened Abhivyakti Sanskrutik Sthal)…to his palatial residence where he is quite at home amidst the Belgian-glass chandeliers, Italian mosaic-patterned flooring and walls, stained-glass windows, marble statuary and portraits of his illustrious ancestors in the opulent Darbar Hall. Our trek has earlier taken us to the Fatehsinh Museum for an informed tour of the Gaekwad collection of portraits and mythological paintings done by the famed artist, Raja Ravi Varma during the decade he spent there in a studio specially constructed for him (it is believed to be the single largest collection of paintings by the legendary artist)…. Back at the palace Ranjitsinhji squats unassumingly on the lawns fronting the sunken garden that reflects the architectural gem when filled with water - as it often is when hired out to the city's affluent for their lavish weddings.

He has mastered the fine art of being a monarch in modern times. And yet the 69-year-old maharaja sounds nostalgic as he recounts wistful tales of a carefree childhood spent with his seven siblings and an assortment of cousins - piling on to the toy train that transported them to their private school within the grounds (now the Fatehsinh Museum, where the train's original steam engine is on view) and back, cycling to and from school once they were old enough, performing at the concerts held to celebrate his parents' birthdays, learning the elementary skills of drawing and painting by copying pictures, painstakingly building cities with rubber bricks while ill and in bed, playing cricket on the vast grounds or horse riding with his father.

"We had to go riding every morning because my father was very keen on it. For a short time, we were also taught Bharat Natyam - whether we liked it or not. There was too much of regimentation," insists Ranjitsinhji. It was impossible for any of them to bunk classes, either, as there were just three or four students per class. Education was a priority and strict discipline had to be maintained. "We were constantly supervised by our Swiss nannies, so we didn't have much freedom," he laments, recalling the many times he tried unsuccessfully to run away from singing practice for the elaborate annual concerts - for which he was invariably singled out to memorise long verses in his free time, while his siblings played merrily. "I think we had a more disciplined upbringing than other children of our generation. At the same time, we had the liberty to walk out into the garden barefoot at all times - so we never had any hang-ups that we were special children."

With father Pratapsinh away a lot, mother Shantadevi busy with the state administration and the older three siblings attending public appointments and functions, the younger five had to keep each other company. "My elder brother, Fatehsinh (who passed away in 1989) was under training, as he was the Yuvaraj, so he was never with us. Also, there was a big difference between our ages. After him, there were four sisters, then me, then another sister and then the youngest - a brother who lives in Mumbai. We had a happy childhood, but we were not pampered." The younger five formed one group, often playing hide-'n'-seek in the dark, unused rooms of the summer palace where many of the Ravi Varma paintings were hung. "You know children…once they start playing, they are not aware of what's around. Most of the time, we hardly noticed the works of art…but those rooms at the summer palace seemed so haunted, that I clearly remember which paintings were displayed there," he declares, indicating some of them at the Fatehsinh Museum.

The toy train made by London-based Royal Locomotives was fully functional with a steam engine and three coaches when it was gifted to Ranjitsinhji on his fifth birthday by his father. In 1958, the royal family bestowed the train to the Vadodara Municipal Corporation so that the city's children could enjoy rides on it at the Sayaji Gardens - built by his great-grandfather, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III for his loyal subjects. It was when the train's engine was declared unfit for further use a few years ago, that the original owner asked for the gift to be returned. After sprucing it up, he has given it pride of place at the entrance to the Fatehsinh Museum. Indeed, trains are an abiding passion with him. In his music room below the terrace, which bears evidence of his daily vocal practice sessions (he is an accomplished Indian classical singer in the Kirana Gharana), we spot a miniature railway track. Opening some of his dearly beloved boxes filled with memories, he shows us a couple of beautifully crafted train sets from Germany. "I have to be very careful that my grandchildren don't see them," he laughs.

Most of the trappings of royalty may have vanished post-Independence but rather than mourn the passing away of those days of regal splendour, Ranjitsinhji revels in the freedom it has brought to his once restricted lifestyle. Disclosing that he hated being bundled into the train and carted to school like a parcel as a child, he recollects how thrilled he was to discover a new route each day once he learnt to ride a bicycle. "I don't ever wish that the bygone days would return. In fact, I prefer life today…there's more freedom as a commoner," muses the monarch who enjoys driving himself in his trusty car, to the bemusement of his 'subjects'. After the first few frosty moments of our encounter that morning, he has thawed out when he heard that my father came from Sawantwadi in Sindhudurg district of Maharashtra - a quaint little town 'ruled' by his elder sister, Rani Satvashiladevi Bhonsle…and invited me to ride with him in his car. "I have a license, you know… and I hold a very good record. So would you care to ride with me?" Who could resist such an invitation?