Monday, June 17, 2013

Some thoughts on the "royal" Rajasthan

These are based on my recent short trip to Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. The trip was not an academic venture. I had gone for some personal reasons so it will be a reflection based entirely on observations.

An economy of forts

Albert Museum
Rajasthan makes up to be one of the most historically-conscious, as one may put it, state in India. The pink city is famous and known for its forts. Infact, one of the most obvious images that conjures up when one thinks of Rajasthan is that of the innumerable forts and not to forget, "tradition". The desert, women in lehenga, the traditional rajasthani turban, katputli, bajre ki khichdi...Rajasthan, to an outsider, is synonymous with the traditional Rajasthan. There is also a haunted side to Rajasthan with legends and haunted stories weaved around medieval forts, the best known being that of Bhangarh. Rajasthan is a much-glorified place but what is interesting, but not new, is how the glorification is encashed. It will not be anything new to mention how forts are being converted into hotels, or how hotels have tried to ape the architecture of forts, the most-famous chowkidhaani that promises you a glimpse into the "traditional" village and the over-priced rajasthani food. What I intend to do in this write-up is to reflect on the glorification of tradition.

Whose tradition?

We were near Rajasthan, not sure if we were in Rajasthan, when I, through the window of cafe coffee day, saw a camel. I also saw a man wearing the traditional rajasthani turban. I was a bit shocked with the contrasting images. I would notice the dress of women as our car passed by villages. It was nothing like the glamorised ethnic wear. They wore bright-colored but simple lehenga with a tight-fitting blouse (that we (should i say delhites?) wear with a saree) with a bare midriff. All throughout my journey, I saw this style and needless to mention, I only saw women of not from a very high economic background opting for this dress. The men who would wear the turban would also be generally from a modest economic background. It was not that I was expecting everyone in Rajasthan to be dolled-up in ethnic wear but I found this interesting. All the tradition seems to be now carried off by people who live at the margins. 

What about the people of the middle and elite classes? Well, they hop in western clothes or in kurta-pyjama to the malls and the World Trade Park. The World Trade Park, is a mall with no place to sit but to roam about, admiring the expensive shops, the chandliers and the egyptian, chinese and other unnamed but "foreign" (and that is enough!) statues. Out of the four restaurants that I visited, only the one of the hotel included a rajasthani dish in its menu. As about shopping in a regular place, not the famous jowhri bazaar, there was also nothing "rajasthani". The point is... the traditional seems to be the burden of the underprivileged.

Chowkidhaani - The glamorised village

You go to Jaipur and you don't visit chowkidhaani, that's not possible! I have been to Jaipur many times and each time, I have been there, I have visited chowkidhaani to get the "rajasthani" feel. Chowkidhaani promises a "glimpse" into the traditional village. But you will be disappointed if you think through because the glamorised replica does not talk anything about the farmer suicides and the social evils that exists. It reminded me of the ideal image of the self-sustaining and peaceful village that many western thinkers including marx had hold onto.

I remember that last time, we were welcomed by a group of ladies dressed in traditional clothes, a smiling face who would put teeka on our forehead. This time, it was just a young girl who was severely disinterested. She had left the lot before us as she didn't want to waster her energy calling out to them. Nevertheless, she had put the teeka on our forehead like a machine stamping a barcode on a product. I wasn't disappointed seeing the prospering business until I saw three varying prices - 500, 600 and 700. I thought it was the ticket but it was actually the price for the food per head. The highest was for the traditional Rajasthani thali.

It was fun to be in the ideal and dream-like village (a dream especially for those who actually live in villages). It was "exciting" to be in the line to hurt a camel (read camel ride). But the genuinely exciting part was the rajasthani thali. Drenched in rain, with our wet and mud-soaked clothes, we dined on the feast that was once only the right of the "royal". While we feasted on bajre ki kheechdi which was swimming in ghee, the ghee-soaked daal baati churma and many other dishes, a guy was singing the ethnic songs. I do remember his face and the songs that he played. It is a daily ritual for him. However, then and now a thought that crops up in my mind is that has things changed for him? Then and now, he played for the privileged. Then and now, he doesn't have an option. He is sticking on to the tradition.

The forts and the farce of blue-bloodedness 

Coming back to forts. As I saw the forts, especially the amber fort with the long-running ramparts, I was lost trying to imagine the past. But not "my" past. If I were what I am today, in terms of my economic status, in those centuries, I wouldn't have been even allowed to enter the forts with respect. Being a woman, my status would have been even lower. So how is this a past that I should be expected to be proud of? We went to the Albert museum and were expected to be in awe of the "royal" items of daily use. Yes, I was in awe of the fact that they sucked money from the commoners and created a nice royal world for themselves while the commoners suffered during a famine.

But one definite thing that I was happy to realise is that how this farce of blue-bloodedness has been shunned by the recent trend of marrying in forts. Today, it is common for the economically privileged to realise this "dream". Ofcourse, it is still extended only to a few. But I feel happy imagining how the souls and ghosts? of the royalty would react when people of non-rajput or "high" blood share the same privilege.

Concluding with an epic statement 

I would just like to end with what a man who sells chunni/gudiya ke baal (candyfloss in english) had said to two people who were debating about what to call the item that he sold. He said, "Haan, chunni ke baal hi kehte hai par kuch vilayati bandar ise candy floss keh gaye". (Yes, it is called chunni ke baal but some foreign monkeys gave it the name of candy floss.) I think his statement sums it up well. 

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