Sunday, August 19, 2007

Alexander's forgotten question

The spiralling staircase, the rooms adorned with hunting crops, harnesses and an assortment of lances and maces arranged in museumesque splendour and a hallway that captured the leading lights of the Wodeyar dynasty, had given way to a huge hall. Paintings, antiques and perhaps thousands of books lined the walls, where in a corner, sat a big burly man. Though dwarfed by the mile high ceiling and the scale of the architecture and furniture, his form was imperious. Weighed down by heavy bracelets, rings with rocks that could sink a ship and a massive girth, sat Srikantha Datta Narsimharaja Wodeyar, the last in line of the illustrious Wodeyars.

Honestly, I was a trifle disappointed. I had walked in expecting to meet a king - a man who was born to rule the millions, were milling around outside these walls before the wheels of time and republican democracy snatched away what had hitherto been a birthright for the Wodeyars. And while the visual similarity with Henry VIII was unmistakable, it still was quite a challenge to the untrained mind to be able to envisage the portly individual sprawled out in front of us in a black tee and shorts ‘ensemble’ (His Highness happens to be a designer) that seemed a size too small as ‘the man who should be king’. He must have been equally disappointed when yours truly happened to saunter in, devoid of any semblance of grey, both within and without his big head, for His Highness just looked down the tip of his royal nose and closed his eyes. Whether he was muttering silent curses for having agreed to meet the dullard sitting across him on an afternoon made for siestas or merely hoping for the glorious return of the good old days where he could have dismissed pesky members of the press to the palace dungeons, is for you to gather, but after a few silent awkward moments, the interview began.

Taking an interview is a bit like pearl-diving. Every question is like a dive into the unknown. It’s not your world but your subject’s, a world he knows well and one, no matter how well prepared you are, will always remain alien to you…with pearls rare and dangers galore for the unsuspecting interviewer. Soon, the titular Maharajah had left me embarrassed though for the unkind thoughts I had harboured at the beginning of this encounter. As far as the pearl diving analogy goes, this was an environment both benign and bounteous. Candid and unassuming, His Highness spoke like a favourite uncle recounting a favourite story. But while he spoke of friends and foes, Gods and guardians, legacies and losses, I became aware of a pall of gloom that seemed to be creeping upon us, hanging heavy from the ceiling and the walls. It was then that I realised that His Highness didn’t seem to be a particularly happy man. Beneath his veneer of regal dignity and his reputation as a legendary reveler, he seemed scarred and tormented.

Srikantha Wodeyar’s peace of mind has been ravaged by a no-holds barred legal battle with the state over his rights to his home – the magnificent Amba Vilas Palace. “If I lose the case, to walk out of the Palace with my clothes on would perhaps be illegal,” he said, a sad smile masking his anguish. The woe of the Wodeyars is further compounded by a curse uttered 400 long years ago by the wife of the vanquished viceroy of Vijaynagar that every Wodeyar king shall remain childless, seems to have stuck with the clan. HH Srikantha Datta too is childless and ‘well placed sources’ in the state tell me that much like Lord Dalhousie’s infamous Doctrine of Lapse, the state government too hopes to use the fact to its advantage and acquire the property worth 100s, perhaps a thousand crores or more. While there are two sides to every story, and the state claims that it is acquiring the property for the ‘benefit of the people’, it truly is a sad sight to see the scion of the noble Wodeyars, lament “there are times I think ‘why should I live any longer?’... And I don’t regret not having a child… I’m not too sure the present circumstances would’ve allowed him to live with his head held high….” Call me a petty royalist but I can’t help but wonder what kind of independence he must celebrate every 15th of August….


Rolls Royce’s and 21 gun salutes are what you would normally associate with the Indian princes of the past. Their days of glory are very well known. Especially the last Nizam of Hyderabad, who even appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1937 as the world’s richest man. Said to have 200 Rolls Royce cars on his beck and call (a feat unequalled since) he knew how to live in style. Perhaps that’swhy when the time came to accede to India he resisted, hoping that he could carve out an independent state within the state of India, to no avail, he was forced to accede in 1948. Time has been harsh for much of the former princely states after Independence, deprived of much of their status, pomp and ceremony, they have withered, especially after Indira Gandhi abolished the practice of Privy Purse in 1971. Deprived of the means to generate upkeep for their huge properties, many, like the Maharanas and Maharajas of Udaipur and Jodhpur, were forced to open them up for commercial uses, thus retaining more than a mere shadow of their past glory. Others, much like Srikantha Datta have embarked upon fairly successful political careers, riding on the popularity that their title and legacy allows them and invested in businesses and recast themselves as entrepreneurs. And some like the Hyderabad Nizams have frittered away their wealth between countless claimants and prodigal excesses.


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