She would have passed off for any other grandmother except that Satvashila Devi Bhonsle, 82, exudes a certain dignity and presence that speaks volumes about her past and present. She personally greets visitors at the entrance to her palace, something she had never done before the royal abode was opened to visitors. This erstwhile queen has definitely acquired a flexibility born out of necessity, and has embraced changing times, something that is never easy for royalty.
In the Durbar Hall at Sawantwadi Palace, at the southern tip of Maharashtra, the rajmata is busy as she patiently monitors the caterers laying out a spread for visitors from the Deccan Odyssey, the luxury train that makes a stop here. Along with her (now late) husband, she has poured her heart and soul into maintaining the palace, where the family currently lives. Opening her grand home to visitors helps her manage things a little better. Her other passions are keeping alive the tradition of ganjifa cards, a dying craft in India, and painting.
Bhonsle hails from the Gaikwad family of Baroda, a great-granddaughter of the last maharaja, and sister of cricketer Fatehsinh Rao Gaekwad. She was 16 when she was married to Shivram Sawant Bhonsle, the heir apparent of Sawantwadi, in 1951. The family lived in nearby Belgaum for nearly 20 years, visiting Sawantwadi for a week’s stay every few months. It was during this time that the young bride found inspiration in the surrounding forests, which continue to inspire her painting—birds, butterflies and animals, her favorites being horses, lions and tigers.
On a trip to Sawantwadi in 1971, the Bhonsles bought a pack of ganjifa cards, traditional playing cards whose history dates back to Egypt and Persia and then India. They also discovered that the artist, Panduranga Chitare, who had been working on these cards, was pushing 82 and had refused to teach anyone the art as he felt there was no market for the cards. He felt the art should die with him.
That got the young royals thinking and they decided to keep the art alive and kicking. “All over the country, the princely states looked after the arts and culture of their states and every state had artists working on ganjifa cards. Post Independence, the royal families had to get out and earn a living. Thus, patronage for the artists was on the wane. We did not want the art to die out because, with it, the name of Sawantwadi, too, would be lost to posterity,” says the rajmata.
“My husband and I asked Chitare to come to the palace and live and work there. We got a few boys from the village to learn from him and the workshops started functioning. Within two years, we were able to set up Sawantwadi Lacquer Ware as a unit in 1973.”
Sawantwadi is not the only place where ganjifa cards are made; they are produced in Kolkata and Odisha too. But are there enough takers for these cards? “Yes, there is enough scope and more for these handcrafted pieces of art, worldwide,” she answers. “We get orders from Europe and Japan and we find it tough sometimes to meet the demand as we employ only nine people. Word-of-mouth brings us enough customers.”
When not overseeing production of the cards, Bhonsle spends hours painting. These are largely miniatures done in watercolours or poster colours. Some of her paintings are in a museum attached to the palace and one of her larger works in oils, The Cheetah Hunt, hangs in the palace museum in Kolhapur.
In the 1960s, the Bhonsles started a college for the children of the town as they were not able to get decent jobs for want of a good education. They were so committed to the cause that they converted one of their palaces across the lake into a college, Sri Pancham Khemraj Mahavidyalaya, named after the erstwhile king. “I am happy that, today, the college has all the degrees available for the kids—science, arts, law, commerce. We also have a school running in the same premises. It is called the Queen Mother’s School and is up to Class VIII. There are 800 kids on the rolls.”
Shubhada Bhonsle, her very elegant daughter-in-law, who looks every bit a royal in her printed chiffon sari with her head covered, is all praise for the rajmata. “Her energy and sense of discipline inspire and motivate us to do everything we are supposed to do,” she says. “She wakes up at 4.30 am and plans the rest of the day, including an audience with all those who wish to meet her. She paints in the morning and in the afternoon. She tells us that one has to be busy working till the end so that one stays out of everything else. I have learnt a lot from her. I used to be very reclusive but she has made me into a strong person. She has opened so much for me by encouraging me to follow pursuits beyond my own interests. For instance, I am an interior designer but she brought me into the college and now I am there quite regularly. Two years ago, if someone had told me that I would help run an educational institute, I would never have believed it.”
Bhonsle’s suave and debonair grandson, Lakham Bhonsle, pitches in and helps his parents and grandmother to run the place. He recently completed his studies in the US and has been working in Sawantwadi for the past year. “I am very fond of art and heritage and proud to be a part of this,” he says. “In the very near future, I hope to be here in a more regular fashion and help my very dynamic grandma to run the place.”
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