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Progressive royals

Articulate and affable ... Shubangini Raje and Ranjit Singh.

LEAFING through a tabloid on the flight to Baroda (Vadodara), you come across the photograph of a handsome couple, the stately lady in the royal "uniform" of flowered chiffon and pearls, and the man, tall and distinguished, smiling at guests at a do in Mumbai.

As you wait in a rather nondescript room of the Laxmi Vilas, gazing at the portrait of the queen mother Shanta Devi, the photograph in the newspaper comes to life as the couple descends the carved staircase, looking every bit as impressive as their picture. Only the lady is now dressed in a simple nine-yard cotton sari draped in typical Maharashtrian style.

The lovely Shubhangini Raje smiles easily and is forthcoming with her views while Sri Ranjit Singh is reserved. But his silence thaws as the interview progresses. It is typical of the liberal attitude of the Baroda royalty that both the scion and his wife meet you unlike the other houses where you don't get to meet the queen.

The articulate Shubhangini Raje contributes actively to the interview. Women's education has always been a priority in the State: Ranjit Singh's eldest sister, Mrinalini Devi Pawar is the Chancellor of the reputed Maharaja Sayaji Rao University of Baroda. Established in 1949, it is known for its courses in the performing and fine arts and is associated with a glittering array of personalities.

"The name Gaekwad still has value," says Ranjit Singh, settling down while his golden retriever, Simba, plonks his handsome frame at his feet and gazes with liquid eyes at his master. "My brother declared everything after Independence and so became the richest man in the country. Our entire property was taxed. But we are trying to make it lucrative by renting it out." The Shiv Nivas Palace is a sought after venue for lavish weddings while the Pratap Vilas, an exercise in Edwardian Baroque, now belongs to the Government and houses the Railway Staff College. Baroda was one of the first States to introduce railways in the country.

"We are not into hotels, not yet," says Ranjit Singh. "Our son Samarjit Singh has just started building a golf course," adds Shubhangini Raje.

The Singhs also have two daughters, while Ranjit Singh's niece is married into the Scindia family of Gwalior.

Like most royals, Ranjit Singh is a connoisseur of the arts. What makes him remarkable is that he is a consummate artist himself. Trained in Hindustani music and art, he is a practising musician and a painter. "I give concerts all over the country, hold art exhibitions and teach painting at the Baroda University. I am now doing my Ph.D on Indian headgear."

He is quite pleased with the cultural centre he has started on the premises of the Kirti Mandir, a few kilometres from the Lakshmi Vilas. At Kirti Mandir, marble busts of generations of rulers are displayed along with that of their consorts.

In contrast to Rajasthan, the queens are a visible presence in Baroda and Queen Jamnabai is featured often in portraits and statuary.

Art and the Baroda royalty are closely allied. Raja Ravi Varma stayed here for 10 years producing some superlative works. "You should see our collection of Ravi Varmas at the Fatesh Singh museum. In quality, we have the best", says Shubhangini Raje proudly. "We have now sent many of them to Mumbai for an exhibition".

Ranjit Singh's paintings are in the impressionistic style. A few of them are in galleries abroad. He also does modern sculptures — in copper plate and aluminium. "I can't claim to be an artist but I appreciate music and art, "says Shubhangani Raje, who adds that she is not from a princely family but comes from a Sardar family from Gwalior.

Ranjit Singh who took over — "in a simple ceremony" — as head of the Gaekwad dynasty after his brother Fateh Singh's death in 1989, feels there is a change in the perception of people towards royalty. "In the 1960s and 1970s, you had to be apologetic to be a royal. Cinema portrayed them in a negative way. Now there is a difference."

"Perhaps also because of disillusionment with the present," adds his wife.

Compulsory education for girls, special schools for the backward classes and encouragement of sports are among the achievements of the Gaekwads that the couple list.

"B. R. Ambedkar was sent abroad for studying law by Sayaji Rao. Everyone was given equal opportunity as the rulers had a broad vision. Faiyaz Khan would sing bhajans in temples and the State would celebrate Mohurram." Baroda attracted the exceptionally gifted Sri Aurobindo who was the Vice-Principal of the State College before going to Pondicherry.

How is it that Gujarat has become such a cauldron of communal strife? "Politicians are to be blamed. They are taking us back in time. The average Barodian is worried as the cultural scene and the social climate are changing. The acceptability of Western culture is also growing greater. I'm very partial to jeans. But I'm very partial to khadi too. I think a balance has to be struck."

Shubhangini Raje is very much into social work, especially women's issues. She is also trustee of a hospital. He has been a Member of Parliament for two terms. "I didn't enjoy it much. But he is proud that during his tenure, "The zilla parishads stood first in India in development programmes and Baroda was connected by air to the other cities. But the politicians don't want to give us credit for all this."

The Gaekwads are synonymous with cricket. "Cricket became a family game and it was played on the Lakshmi Vilas grounds," says Ranjit Singh. His brother Fateh Singh Rao was President of the Board of Cricket Control. "Baroda State provides great opportunities for youngsters playing the game and we have a cricket association; we have always had our boys in the test team." Anshuman Gaekwad, belongs to the royal family. "I used to play Ranji Trophy matches," says the 65-year-old Ranjit Singh. And now? "Now I play the tampura," he smiles.


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