Monday, December 23, 2013

Two popular Maharajas depart -- and we see that our republic is good for royals

The Constitution makes all citizens equal. But in the hearts of Indians the idea of royalty is entrenched and maharajas remain more equal than all others. It's like we are a genetically loyal people; where genuine royals are not available, we enthrone political families for us to be loyal to. In Karnataka and Kerala, there was grief of the genuine kind over the passing of Sreekanta Datta Wodeyar of Mysore and Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore; they were maharajas of the popular kind.

In a republican universe, these gentlemen had to accept power as a matter of sentiment rather than of right. Both faced it stoically, occasionally resisting without losing their dignity and more often yielding to the inevitable. Wodeyar toyed with politics for a while, then abandoned it. Marthanda Varma never went near politics. By avoiding that rambunctious vocation, they spared themselves the humiliations as well as the dubious pleasures of a political career.

Mysore and Travancore were also free of destructive family feuds. Baroda, once a glittering dynasty, was sucked into litigation around 1990 and got out of it only in October this year. That they struck a deal at all was remarkable considering that the quarrel was over a patrimony of palaces, diamonds, gold, exquisite jewellery and priceless paintings. Patiala's Bhupinder Singh was the most famous maharaja of all time who played first-class international cricket on the one hand and, on the other, would take two or three whole chickens for one of his simpler meals. Today the dynasty is reduced to Congressman Amarinder Singh who is no match to Akali tacticians.

Compared to luminaries like Bhupinder Singh, the maharajas of Mysore and Travancore were spartans. Sreekanta Datta's father Jayachama Rajendra Wodeyar was a composer of Carnatic music kritis, a promoter of industry, education and some 200 wrestling clubs. At the same time the mess that enveloped Mysore royal family's properties began in his time, climaxing during his son's "reign". There was a touch of pathos when Sreekanta Datta said one day: " I have vast properties on paper, but I have no money".

The reverse was the case with Marthanda Varma; he had unaccounted wealth on paper, but no property worth talking about. The discovery of several secret underground cells in the revered Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum was a worldwide sensation for the cells contained gold and golden artefacts of inestimable value. Marthanda Varma as head of the royal family was the formal custodian in his capacity as Padmanabha Dasa, but it was a presumed right that others questioned. He lived a frugal life, barring the rare cars, watches and cameras he collected in his younger days. His brother Chithira Thirunal, the last maharaja, lived like a hermit in the palace.

By the standards of Indian royalty, the Travancore palace was only a large bungalow, no comparison to Mysore's splenderous Amba Vilas Palace, a sort of Taj Mahal of the south. Baroda's (Vadodara's) Laxmivilas Palace, four times the size of poor Queen Elizabeth's Buckingham Palace, sits on a landscaped garden of 700 acres. But these are white elephants. Entry fees paid by 2.7 million visitors a year were insufficient for the maintenance of the Mysore Palace.

That was perhaps one reason some royals more daring than Wodeyar went into politics where one could become effortlessly rich. But one would have to be ready for risks as well. Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur won a seat in Parliament in 1962 in the largest landslide the world had seen. But she was opposed to the Congress, incurred the wrath of Indira Gandhi and landed up in Tihar jail where she was given inhuman treatment. Things have improved since. A maharani has just been sworn in as Chief Minister of Rajasthan, a true royal who suffers no fools, gets irritated easily, insists on European holidays and retires every day at 8 p.m. after which she is inaccessible to her praja. In Delhi a Crown Prince is getting primmed up for his coronation as prime minister candidate. Long live the Kings -- and the Queens and the Princes.