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Royal Patronage
Text by Supriya Nair and Photograph by Ritam Banerjee
Published: Volume 17, Issue 6, June, 2009

Asha Raje and Praggyashree Gaekwad, princesses of the royal family of Baroda, speak with Supriya Nair about the moving spirit of the Gaekwad Art Foundation, and their upcoming exhibition of contemporary Nepalese art in Mumbai

We find ourselves amidst walls upon walls of paintings, in a small preview gallery in South Mumbai. The art is extraordinary; vivid and textured, pushing boundaries between depictive and abstract. Some are mounted, more stacked in their frames, a work-in-progress. We are sneaking a look at Mystical Odyssey, an upcoming exhibition of the work of four landmark artists from Nepal, and taking us on this journey are the curators of the exhibition, Princess Asha Raje Gaekwad and her daughter-in-law Praggyashree. Poised and stately, both seem perfectly at home in the whirl of colour and activity around us.

“We belong to Nepal and India,” Asha Raje explains, “Nepal is my janmabhoomi (place of birth), and India my karmabhoomi (place of action).” For Asha Raje and Praggyashree, these happen to be two remarkably similar yet remote nations. Born into the royal house of Nepal and married into the Baroda royal family, Asha Raje is keenly aware of the long tradition of art patronage and preservation among the royal clans of India and Nepal. It is not entirely without a sense of history that she embarks on her current project, through the nascent Gaekwad Art Foundation.

“We came across some lovely paintings in Nepal, in 2006,” she explains. “And we both began to research art in Nepal. We started the Gaekwad Art Foundation to help artists out in whatever way we could, to create art in all forms, from painting to sculpture, and more.” In their quest to discover the art of the Himalayan kingdom, the princesses travelled through the length and breadth of the country, making lists of top artists as well as scoping out craftsmen and painters in tiny outposts of the land, keeping age-old traditions alive. They took note of painters whose work is in demand among Nepal’s smart set, and marvelled even as they found artisans keeping alive the native devotional poubha art of painting with crushed stone, from which more widely-known arts, like Tibetan thangka painting, draw their influence.

The Indo-Nepalese connection that Asha Raje and Praggyashree are attempting to foster through the Gaekwad Art Foundation is meant to be bilateral, they inform us. “It is important for artists to know where they stand,” says Asha Raje. “For exposure and inspiration it is as important for artists to be seen in Nepal, as it is for Nepalese artists to show in a city like Mumbai. We will eventually have a show with artists from here – particularly from areas like Baroda – in Nepal, and help little-known and deserving artists from both countries in whatever way we can.”

A gracious proposition, but altogether unsurprising. The tradition of royal patronage stretches back through the ages, and comes to a point today where it forms an alternative to corporate sponsorship and bureaucratic bingo. With their classical education and contemporary outlook, reflected even in their tastes – Asha Raje counts Rembrandt as a favourite artist, while Praggyashree is inclined towards modern art – the ladies Gaekwad carry on the traditions of their janmabhoomi and their karmabhoomi with trademark elegance.

Mystical Odyssey, featuring the art of Kiran Manandhar, Seema Shah, Uma Shankar and Manish Lal Shreshta, will show at Jehangir Art Gallery, between June 18 and 24.

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