Dressed in a pretty turquoise Chanderi saree, which she later reveals to be an 80-year-old piece given to her by her mother-in-law, Maharani Radhikaraje Gaekwad takes the stage to engage in a discussion with Rasika Wakalkar at Conrad Pune. People are aware of the royal vibe she gives out. She looks like a dream.
Starting the session, she answers the question on everyone’s mind,
“What is it like to be a Maharani?”
“Belonging to a certain family is an intrinsic part of you. It’s only when you grow up that you realise that your life is different from what everyone else’s is like routinely,” she says.
She goes on to touch upon various topics of interest. Here are excerpts from the discussion:
Forming aesthetic sense
The Maharani says that her aesthetics, like everyone else’s, were formed watching the way her mother and grandmother dressed. “Our parents, grandparents, will always be the most beautiful and handsome people in our lives. Our aesthetics are always formed by our own memories,” she explains.
She also talks about how her grandfather, who was always smartly dressed, inspired her love for romanticism. “Every morning when he would go for his walk, he would carry a different walking stick, which had to match with his shoes. The pocketwatch would be worn, there was a lot of romanticism in the way he carried himself,” says the Maharani.
She recalls how she was introduced to various textiles from different parts of India because her father was an IAS officer and her mother shared a love for sarees. “When we think of royal families, we only think of them in chiffon. But in my wedding trousseau, I had sarees from everywhere! Wherever we travelled, my mother would pick up one saree for the collection,” she says.
Association with artisans
“Traditionally all patronage came from royal homes, so post Independence, we not only lost our textile, but we also lost our musicians, our cuisines. All the refined tastes of India were patronised by royalty, even if they developed at the local kitchen or at the weaving loom, the final call on patronage or passing a design to make it a part of life was taken by royal families. This diminished post Independence because there was no one to continue that patronage. And you see it at so many different levels, the loss we’ve had. The royal families have always felt an association with craftsmen and musicians because there’s been such a relationship for centuries and even now, the warmth of that relationship exists,” says the Maharani.
Reviving the Chanderi
The Maharani claims that her passion for fabrics and textiles came from her mother-in-law, Rajmata Shubhangini Raje Gaekwad, who has been involved in reviving the traditional weave of Chanderi. “She has an understanding of the textile. She wants to revive it and pass on the story and legacy to the next generations,” says the Maharani, adding, “When my sister-in-law was getting married and my mother-in-law wanted to collect her trousseau and create the essentials for the wedding, be it the zari Chanderi or the shela, she was not finding any. That’s when she started visiting the weavers and asking them why weren’t they making what they’ve always made. They said, there’s no market, and that they had lost the art and techniques of working with real zari and motifs. They were working with the katan because that was faster, cheaper and that was what was selling,” says the Maharani.
She believes that it is important to get the weavers back on their looms. “Weavers have just stopped weaving. This was a traditional father-to-son pass-down vocation. There used to be a sense of pride in being a weaver, and why not? It’s an artistic job to weave something that is to be worn and cherished by generations. The weaver is the person to be celebrated,” says she, while pointing out that every day one loom is burnt for firewood as it does not seem to generate enough money.
Pre-British Raj, the royalty were looked to for setting new trends. Even now, claims the Maharani, they are responsible for this. “I remember when I got married, for the functions I would have all these younger daughters-in-law from the extended community come up and say, ‘Please don’t cover your head, because then we won’t have to.’ It would be break away, a trend, suddenly you realise what you do would trickle down and if it was okay for my mother-in-law to have me sit without my head covered, then it would be okay for other mothers-in-law to ease off a little on their daughters-in-law. Or they would say, ‘There’s a dinner, can we just wear salwar kameez? If you wear, then we’ll be allowed.’ So it does set a norm even today, I think the royals were not just fashion icons at that time, they were icons in many ways, they broke a lot of conventional norms. However, some were successful, some were not,” says the Maharani.
Pointing out why Bollywood has replaced the way royals would set new trends, she says, “Back in the day, the media was not what it was. Not everyone had access to camera, so mostly the royal families were photographed because they were matter of interest. And that became the picture perfect trend that must be followed,” she says, giving the example of the nath worn by Maratha families, or the tiara worn by royal Nepali families. “It’s very interesting how the bouffant came into play. The hair was styled in that way so that the saree sits on the head and the tiara can be well balanced. There was utility behind these interesting styles, it was aesthetic but purposeful, we let functionality slip by now,” says the Maharani.
Symbolism in royal fashion
The history of certain regions of India has been documented in more detail than others. For instance, Rajasthan and Hyderabad have more documented history than the Deccan. Why is it so? The Maharani answers, “I think a lot of it has to do with how we perceive history and politics and of course, tourism has played a part. Rajasthan is aesthetically more colourful, and it is a tourist destination. Hyderabad is known for its decadent romanticism. But there is a lot that must be documented from the Maratha history too.”
She says that there is a lot of symbolism carried in that textile and fabric too. “Like in Baroda, in the 19th century, the nauvari would not be hitched up as it was earlier. It became a trail behind the legs, inspired by the Victorian style of draping, which was not functional but it looked pretty. Every family had their own adaptations of style and fashion. Today, you see a pagdi (headgear) and think what a pretty colour it is, but there is a significance behind every colour. When there is a tazia (procession), the Maharaja would wear a green pagdi, pink pagdis were worn on holi, and so on. In Gwalior, the number of twists on the pagdi would decide the importance of your family. Like a medal, you would be given an extra knot in your pagdi. When men went for a wedding, swords had to be carried, in scabbards, and always draped with a dupatta. The dupatta made it ceremonial, distinguishing it from battle. My husband married me with his sword, of course, he later realised he needs it, but the dupatta was always there. There’s a lot of symbolism that we’ve lost out on and it needs to be documented,” she says.