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Princely tales

"Times are changing, but I must follow the ideals of my ancestors," says Babaji Rajah Bhonsle Chattrapathy, scion of the Thanjavur royal family


DEITIES Pachchai Kali and Pavazha Kali arrive at the prince's doorstep for an annual ritual. The Ayyanar of the washermen tribe is taken out on a procession from a niche in his palace. The mangalsutra of Bangaru Kamakshi (immortalised in Syama Sastri's songs) is honoured by him before the annual marriage rite in the temple. He joins the bhajan sessions at the mutts established in Thanjavur by Maratha saint Samartha Ramdass. He literally walks on fire at folk festivals, presides over the installation of a new priest in church and sends annual offerings to the dargah in Nagoor. His ancestor Pratapa Simha had built minars and donated lands for its upkeep.

"No use for me to explain there are no kings in democratic India," Babaji Rajah Bhonsle Chattrapathy smiles ruefully during a recent visit to Chennai. He was 16 (in 1985) when he became the hereditary trustee of all the charities his Maratha ancestors had started centuries ago — from Ekoji I (circa 1676) to Sivaji II (1855) — including the administration of 88 temples. Babasaheb recalls, "The palace was crumbling, the temples, neglected and their lands under litigations." Things improved with government funding for palace restoration. A resurgence of bhakti enhanced contributions to renovate shrines. Babasaheb's streamlining efforts have resulted in the restitution of some property. "I felt that the trust should strengthen itself, not depend on the government, though I've had tremendous co-operation from many collectors in Thanjavur."

With the political pension allotted by the British Resident (1855) now reduced to token recognition of the princely house, Babasaheb is hard put to maintain his enormous social obligations. Thanjavur treats him with the reverence due to a scion of legendary Maratha rulers such as Sahaji, Tulajaji and Serfoji.

Babasaheb spells pride and strength to Thanjavur Maharashtrians whose ancestors came from Pune or Satara to serve his family. "Sometimes I attend nine weddings in a single day. Not much time left for my favourite shuttlecock," he laughs.

Dharma consciousness, humility and the eagerness to put his hometown on the world map are Babasaheb's goals. Tourism is crucial to his dreams. "Art festivals like the Sadaya Tiruvizha celebrating Rajaraja Chozha's birthday now receive an overwhelming response from artistes and the public. But we must offer an all-round package like Rajasthan does." Not impossible, given the magnificent temples, ancient history, multilingual culture, classical/folk dance, painting styles, handicrafts, palaces, the unique Saraswati Mahal library. "We must modernise some things like encouraging the silk weaving Saurashtrian community to make scarves, shawls and pillowcases for foreign buyers." Recently, a French count opted to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary in Thanjavur, enamoured by the Indian marital rites, each linking the couple with the community.

The Prince often hosts palace banquets, with a three-hour show that includes Thanjavur `specials' like poikal kudirai and palm leaf calligraphy. The menu has dishes revived from old Maratha cookery treatises "Bhojana Kutoohalam" and "Sarabhendra Paakasastram!"

During Tyagaraja Aradhana in Tiruvaiyaru, Babasaheb plans to offer musical journeys through Thanjavur streets, where the maestros of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam lived and taught. In fact, Tyagaraja — not Pandarinatha or Bhavani — is the presiding deity of the throne of kings who were scholars, artistes and patrons of art and science.

"My ancestors put dharma and social welfare first. Serfoji had recorded the facilities at 22 pilgrim hostelries in his 1801 letter to the British Resident. They were equipped with teachers and doctors, nutritional meals for pregnant pilgrims, child care... Serfoji requested the British Resident to adjust any shortfall in these services from his personal pension." The inns are schools and hostels now, where Babasaheb wants to increase beneficiaries and facilities.

"My Marathi has a Tamil accent, though my mother Vijayaraje and wife Gayatriraje are from the royal families of Kolhapur and Baroda,'' he smiles. Natural in a prince whose forefathers assimilated themselves into Tamil culture, while bringing their own streams — from lavani to harikatha — to nourish it. King Sahaji wrote Marathi compositions in Carnatic style.

Babasaheb Bhonsle ends gently, but with deep feeling, "Times are changing, but I must follow the ideals of my ancestors."

GOWRI RAMNARAYAN

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