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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?

While he acknowledges that the locals expect him to move around in a chauffeur-driven car, he prefers to do what pleases him. “Sometimes, we take the driver when we attend official functions,” he concedes. What delights Ranjitsinhji about his present position is that he is not compelled to carry out the numerous duties once allotted to the ruling maharaja, so it leaves him free to do the things he likes. One of the things he loves is the performing arts, which prompted him to set up a cultural centre cum art gallery within the heritage precinct of the Kirti Mandir – the grand cenotaph of the royal family, which sports murals by Nandalal Bose. Here, youngsters are encouraged to meet and practice dance, theatre and music, display art or just chill out under the leaf-decorated roof of the Javanika Café that he created. “I’m not accountable or isolated now. I can meet people and do my work,” he exults. His work has drawn Verve to Vadodara – for the maharaja is a trained artist who returns to Mumbai after 30 years with an exhibition this month of his drawings, paintings and sculptures selected by Priyasri Patodia, a ‘Baroda girl’ who started her own art gallery here a year ago.

Intrigued by the fact that Ranjitsinhji graduated in Fine Arts from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, then studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in London before returning to Vadodara, we visit his attic-like studio tucked away in a dusty, unoccupied room (‘probably used by the staff earlier’) on the second floor of the palace just below the terrace…and discover a host of drawings and paintings rendered in a variety of mediums, but largely following the impressionistic style. Shrugging off his reclusive nature, the maharaja pulls out old photographs and earlier works with the enthusiasm of an excited schoolboy. The astonishing range seems to be the handiwork of several artists – but they are all his work! From landscapes, portraits and mythological paintings in oils and water colours to charcoal sketches, etchings and graphic drawings in the shape of open cake boxes to copper plate sculptures and folk art, he has tried them all at different stages…with varying degrees of success.

The artist considers himself eternally indebted to the late N.S. Bendre (Bendre Sir) who taught him the intricacies of painting, right from how to hold a brush! He also holds K.G. Subramanyan (Mani Sir) in high esteem for his formidable knowledge and incredible command over English. It is thanks to the former that he is an artist today, as he was inclined towards architecture before he ‘came under Bendre’s wing’ when his school teacher advised him to learn the basics of drawing first. “Bendre Sir treated us as equals and worked with us, though he was the dean and head of the department. He was a very good teacher and could demonstrate on the spot. One could learn by watching him rather than by being taught,” recalls the fond pupil. “Mani Sir used to do a lot of talking to us – which often went over our heads!” Not content with a post-graduate degree in Fine Arts, he engaged in research for a thesis on Indian headgear.

The years that Ranjitsinhji spent in London proved to be quite a challenge. “The system and the whole atmosphere were so different, it took me six months to get used to the life there,” he exclaims. “I had never experienced such severe winter – so I had to get accustomed to the light and the weather conditions. Since there was no hostel, I had to find my own digs. I had to even feed myself, which was a big problem because I didn’t know anything about cooking. I learnt from scratch, right from boiling an egg! Those were hard days for me.” He had no friends in London either – but though he was very homesick in the beginning, he stuck it out. “I survived for three and a half years actually!” he laughs. “After finishing my course, I won a scholarship…and used that amount to travel and practice landscape painting.” In 1965, when he held his first exhibition at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai, he showed most of those landscapes, some portraits and drawings. Kekoo Gandhy had just started the Chemould frame shop. “He framed all my drawings and I still have them,” maintains Ranjitsinhji. “I was really scared to have an exhibition then, but Bendre Sir pushed me.”

Unfazed by the sceptical reactions to his work today by people who consider him a skilled craftsperson rather than an artist, he tries out new things every day. Pointing to his latest experiments, he says: “These bedcovers attracted me when I went to buy canvas. I was not sure if I would be able to paint on them because they are printed, but I liked the typical Indian motifs. I had to build up the figure without drawing, which was difficult…but though I had never done that before, I used my formal academic training.” The skilled draftsman is pleased with the results. His draftsmanship made such a deep impression on Patodia that she has chosen a number of drawings for the show – which will be inaugurated this month at Kitab Mahal and then move to her temporary art space at Shakti Mills.

During the course of the day, I find myself treated to rare glimpses of the maharaja’s personal life. His first ever interaction with the world outside the palace came when he sat for his SSC exams at the age of 15. He enjoyed playing cricket with his siblings and cousins (erstwhile cricketer, Anshuman Gaekwad was the son of one of them, a close friend of his late brother Fatehsinh) and was even part of the winning cricket team at the first Ranji Trophy match. Quite comfortable in blue jeans and a shirt or a kurta-pyjama, he spends most mornings in his studio and evenings in his music room. Ranjitsihnji’s wife, the elegant Maharani Shubhangiraje, hails from Gwalior and he has done numerous portraits of her. The royal couple has one son, two daughters and three grandchildren. When he spied the youngest of them, his son’s weeks-old daughter, enjoying the evening air in her pram on the lawns, he called out to her tenderly: “Dingly-bai, O dingly-bai!”
Most endearing of all is his obvious bewilderment at the aggressiveness of the new generation. “We couldn’t even open our mouths in front of our older siblings…forget our parents. There is such a difference today! Sometimes I don’t know how to deal with it.”

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