Mewar Royalty: Custodian of a hoary legacy
Rana Shriji Arvind Singh of Mewar is the 76th custodian of the Mewar dynasty and a direct descendant of Bappa Rawal and the famed Rajput ruler, Rana Pratap. The custodianship stands unbroken since 734 AD.
Here he talks to The India Observer’s Bureau Chief, Shirin Abbas, on preserving heritage, his moves to preserve Living Heritage and running the Maharana Mewar Charitable Fund to promote preservation of Art, Culture and Heritage.
IF there are some places in India where the magnificence of royalty can still be witnessed and their gracious hospitality enjoyed, Udaipur must top the list. The credit for re-inventing the city as a perfect tourist destination and converting lofty palaces into prime heritage properties goes to Shriji, Arvind Singh Mewar. His vision and foresight has today made Udaipur one of the most coveted tourist destinations in India.
As you enter his private study, the huge TV on his right plays out the drama unfolding on a queer pitch—be it politics or his favourite sport, cricket.
“Hello Prof. (Professor),” he beams, that deep baritone coming from the man seated at the desk, is the customary greeting he has reserved for me over several years of acquaintance.(Referring to my alternate status as a Professor in Media Studies)
His opening sentence is an ice breaker. “I was never the hard-core academic type. By my teens, I’d surrendered to the game of cricket. Eventually, I captained teams at university levels and played for the national championship for Rajasthan. These days I’m only a spectator. But my son Lakshyaraj still plays.” The reference is to the cricket match highlights playing on his TV.
“But you have been listed as a popular Case Study at the Indian School of Business,” I quip.
He responds with a hearty guffaw, “Yes, the Indian School of Business (ISB) Hyderabad, along with Professor John Ward of Kellogg School of Management, has written a case study on our family called India’s Mewar Dynasty. They’ve looked at things from the succession management point of view. One of the questions for classroom discussion is ‘Has Shriji played his role well?’ The students are probably going to tear me apart!” Again that hearty laugh that immediately put you at ease.
“I’ve attended several family business management courses at ISB and I’m constantly thinking about management issues. Leadership fascinates me the most, especially the aspect of how leaders are produced. Issues of succession and division are very important in India. Whether it is the Tatas or the Birlas, every business house started as a family. The Birlas have done well because they have embraced change. Otherwise people tend to hold on to old ideas too long.”
Is that the driving force behind making a profitable business out of heritage properties?
“I have no degree in hotel management, but I started my career in 1968-69, working in hotels in the USA. I am a first-generation businessman and I enjoy my role as the chairman of HRH Group of Hotels. But my approach has never been purely commercial. I am of the firm belief that we owe a responsibility to protect our heritage and plough the wealth back into the region. I don several hats but for me the most important ones is as the head of the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF). My effort has been to make the legacy I come from relevant to the 21st century. We have created the idea of Eternal Mewar, which brings the profit and non-profit activities, intangibles and tangibles under the same umbrella. A unique concept all of its own to carry our legacy forward.
What do you mean when you talk about living heritage?
“Our food, music, dance are all a part of it. Rajasthan has managed to promote its Living Heritage that has drawn tourists here from far and wide. But we have to innovate and add value to the experience. We can’t be offering the same music and food, camel rides and desert safaris that one can get in Jaipur and Jodhpur. We need to work out another niche area. Two years ago we organized a Living Heritage Festival in Udaipur, partnered by UNESCO and MMCF. That has taken the dialogue on Living Heritage to a whole new level. Europe does the same thing very well, especially Germany. Opel recently found out I own a vintage Opel right-hand drive car and they wanted to borrow it for a year for the company’s 150th anniversary celebrations in Russelsheim,” he informs, eyes twinkling now, a smile lurking through his salt and pepper beard as he talks about his favourite subject.
What has prompted this unique outlook?
“If people in position see themselves as custodians and not owners of a historical and cultural legacy, they are prompted to protect, restore and pass it on to future generations intact. We call ourselves the custodians (and not rulers) of the Mewar dynasty. Nobody is drawn to India to see malls and skyscrapers. It is our history, culture, traditions and our rituals that draw tourists from far and wide to the country. If we let all this go, it will be our biggest loss,” he avers.
BRIEF BIO: SHRIJI ARVIND SINGH MEWAR
Educated at Mayo College, Ajmer from where he completed his school certificate conducted by Cambridge University. He obtained his Bachelors of Arts degree in Udaipur. He studied English literature, economics and political science at the Maharana Bhupal College in Udaipur.
He undertook a hotel management course from The Metropolitan College, St Albans, in the UK. Later, he worked in hospitality services in the United States.
Shriji, as he is popularly known, is married to Princess Vijayaraj of Kutch, Gujarat, and they have three children: Princess Bhargavi Kumari Mewar (m. Prince Lokendra Singhji Rathore of Kotri), Princess Padmaja Kumari Mewar (m. Prince Kush Singh Parmar of Santrampur) and Prince Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar (m. Princess Nivritti of Patna).
The family owns heritage hotels, resorts and charitable institutions across Rajasthan. This includes several palaces under the HRH Hotels, Udaipur which include prime properties like the City Palace, Shiv Niwas and Fateh Prakash palace and the beautiful Jag Mandir Island Palace on Lake Pichola in Udaipur that have been a favourite as a luxury heritage tourist hotel and movie locations—both Bollywood and Hollywood!