— JASMEEN DUGAL
Yuvrani Meenal Singhdeo launched her brand, Minaketan, with the vision of boosting living heritage, in the form of art, crafts and textiles of Odissa and transforming her palace into a heritage home-stay. In conversation with her.
''When I got married and came to Odisha in 1990, I was obsessed with handicraft, textile and art. Odisha fed my passion as it was so rich in these spheres. I had about seven-eight craft forms around my home and began working with the local artisans, without a particular aim or purpose. I was just trying out different designs and getting the artisans to make things I could use or gift. 'Minaketan' took shape when I began hosting exhibitions and opened our palace boutique. It was born with the aim of showcasing the art and crafts of Odisha in different parts of the country and overseas, by giving it a more contemporary appeal while retaining its traditional soul. And, of course, patronising the local artisans of Dhenkanal, and other parts of Odisha, as far as we could. These were crafts that were established and grew under the patronage of our ancestors. It felt only right to encourage them further, as living heritage, to preserve and promote the cultural heritage for future generations.
To find their way into modern homes, the art and crafts at times require design intervention. However, the key is to not meddle too much with the technique and process. This is where the artisans' hands have to be held while they work on objects, paintings, jewellery and textiles. it often pained me to see the younger generation not wanting to wear local textiles, or eat in earthenware or Kansa, and only looking for imported items to gift or use in their day to day lives. At 'Minaketan' we tried to made objects using Dokra, Pattachitra, wood carving and handlooms, keeping it user friendly and contemporary. For example, we used ikkat to create western apparel while dokra took the shape of coasters and cardholders. The craftspersons' first reaction would be, 'Not Possible'. Or 'Why should we do something this ridiculous?' And it involved some wastage and a lot of time for them to get it right! We were breaking away from tradition in a traditional setting — but it had to be done.
Over time, my horizon broadened and my vision evolved into a more definite shape. Here, I would like to mention that I have been part of Royal Fables since 2014, a great platform for erstwhile royal patrons of cultural heritage. Anshu Khanna has been a driving force, and has provided a boost to art, crafts, cuisines and heritage through Royal Fables. It is like a large family where everyone shares a comfort level and we travel together to several towns in the country and overseas, building friendship, contacts, clients and media coverage. Many of us are shy to showcase or try and market ourselves and our work, and Royal Fables made it possible for us to do so with ease. Various aspects of heritage, culture and royal India come together in a beautiful kaleidoscopic collage, be it textiles, jewellery, handicrafts, apparel, accessories, art or cuisine. A wonderful endeavour.
Other than art, crafts and textiles, we run our property, Dhenkanal Palace, as a heritage home-stay. It has been close to thirty years since we started out with just one room, hosting our first few guests from England. It was the days of airmails and PP calls! We would receive our guests after memorising the photographs that came to us by post so we bring the correct people home with us! This two hundred years old property is the only fort-cum-palace in Odisha. We were the first to convert to a home-stay with little state infrastructure or impetus but tourism picked up a great deal since we started out. Today we have fifteen rooms for guests; the family gives them personal attention and dines with them. I do feel it is providing heritage tourism in Odisha a boost. There are, unlike Rajasthan or Gujarat, very few palace hotels or home-stays here, so guests enjoy the stay, the architecture and the flavour that is unique to Odisha. And the treasure trove of art and crafts, textiles and culture is a great attraction.
Looking ahead, it is of utmost importance that the younger generation take charge of their cultural inheritance with pride and responsibility, to preserve it and pass it on to the future generations just as it has been passed on from its custodians. They are the future of this country so a sense of pride and responsibility has to be instilled in them from an early age, for them to value it, respect it, appreciate, preserve and enhance it… otherwise it will be lost. Physical exposure and hands-on experiences must be provided to our children. Social media has enabled the younger generation to connect and there are wonderful examples of individuals, museums, organisations and NGOs online that archive aspects of our heritage and curate it in online events. Each one of us has to make that conscious effort to reach out to the younger generation and help them identify with their cultural legacy. As a parent, I have quite literally dragged my children to craft villages and workshops, sites and museums; initially they revolted but today it has paid off, with one child working in the crafts and museum sector and another studying design and helping me with design intervention!!
As I pen this, the pandemic has affected each one of us the world over. The artisans were hit hard. They used to sustain themselves through Sunday bazaars or haats, supplying shops and participating in exhibitions. During the lockdown, they had no access to raw materials, no orders coming in and many were cancelled. They had no sales. Some families had come down to alternating meals. They eat what they earn daily and have very little savings to fall back on. It was a dismal situation. My husband, daughter and I began visiting artisans and weavers we had been working with, with whatever we could muster up. My daughter put in part of her salary, my sister Radhikaraje, my friend Chitvan and I put together our funds with the help of which we went village to village with rations. We would share posts on social media, talking about the plight and hardship they were facing and also showcasing their craft. My sister shared these posts, and due to her large following, our friends, family and complete strangers reached out to aid us. We slowly turned a room in the palace to a granary… we would pack individual packages late into the night and visit a couple of villages the next day. With the help coming in we touched over seven hundred families of potters, blacksmiths, basket weavers, wood carvers, metal workers, patal or dona makers, fishermen, handloom weavers and pattachitra artists. We also provided medical aid, raw material and orders; slowly many orders trickled in through social media and we would collect these items, package and dispatch them on behalf of the artisans. The living room had become our warehouse but we loved it and HDFC Bank honoured our efforts as neighbourhood heroes. Royal Fables also came forward, with Gaurav Khanna of Kanjimull and Sons, to host an online auction envisioned to support our efforts. A beautiful pair of earrings was auctioned and Kanjimull and Sons gave us the proceeds of the sale, for our charity. Till date we are supporting artisans and weavers however we can, and recently, those affected by Cylcone Yaas. Per Mother Teresa — We cannot do great things on this earth, only small things with great love. Hopefully our efforts echo this.''
21 June 2021 12:58 pm LAKSHYARAJ SINGH MEWAR OF UDAIPUR
21 November 2020 1:01 pm RANI ARCHANA KUMARI OF BADNORE
24 May 2020 9:22 am SHIVINA KUMARI, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, PRINCESS DIYA KUMARI FOUNDATION
30 June 2019 10:01 pm LAKSHYARAJ SINGH MEWAR
15 April 2019 7:30 pm HH MAHARAJA GAJ SINGH JI OF JODHPUR