Today couldn’t be a more beautiful day in #Gwalior. The skies are blue and clear. But there is a stillness that chills in the air. The more I look out over the property, the more anxious it makes me feel. The reverberations of crowds of students and tourists no longer echo in the central courtyard. The grass has grown riotously; I finally allow my daughters’ cows to graze in the hope that they will somehow manage to give it a much-needed trimming. Ordinarily, I would lose my temper if the cows were allowed to roam on the grounds, but these are hardly ordinary times. The gates are closed, engulfing the Jai Vilas Palace and HH Sir #Jiwajirao Scindia Museum (in memory of the grandfather of my husband, #Jyotiraditya Scindia) in an eerie calmness; there are only a handful of people on the premises. I am struck by the symbolism behind the etching of the first recorded written zero on our fort; “Shunya”- it stands for nothing, yet represents everything.
My projections for this year were positive; I had hoped to mend the roof, build a stronger museum team, bring in a consultant, and most importantly, give our staff a bonus. My son #Aaryaman, and I worked tirelessly to bring to life Cercle, an immersive music event this January. And next on the cards was #Cymbal, a two-day art and culture festival with environmental conservation at its core, taking place on the premises of our home. We wanted to showcase the best of Madhya Pradesh through this celebration of life, and to shine a light on eco-warriors. Those plans have been indefinitely postponed. Under the current circumstances, I can’t imagine people travelling out of their cities soon, especially to smaller cities like Gwalior. Tourism may not return fully until March or April 2021. That’s a year of revenue lost. Our staff remains in lockdown in their homes, wondering what their financial future entails. As newspapers report daily on employees being let go, they worry about their fate too. Private museums like ours depend heavily on ticket sales. While the Scindia Museum is eligible for grants, these grants come with a lot of rules, which, in the long run, make it difficult for us to look for additional funding. Even so, funding does not pay salaries.
I often hear people say that #Maharajas are lucky to live in their palaces. I assure you that, to us, the palace exterior is just the shell of what lies within. A palace is a vessel of stories, of history, art and heritage. The walls have been witness to innumerable historical moments, secret rendezvous, heads of state, deaths, births and so much more. In 1950, when Indian states unified to become one country, the royal families of India paid Rs. 77 crore to kickstart our country’s economy. This large sum was provided in the form of jewellery, land, palaces, personal effects, armies, educational institutes, healthcare, and infrastructure like railways, which still stand proud today. If the same amount of #money was equated in today’s terms, it would work out to be around Rs 9,97,000 crore. That’s a pretty penny in my opinion, but later even the promise of a privy purse was removed. So our forefathers were forced to evolve. We moved on with the times and had to do what was best for our #homes, families and the people who loyally stood by us through all these times. Therefore, there is a certain duty we feel to work relentlessly to preserve bits of our history, of India’s history. To some of us, historians have been careless or unkind, but we have fought on.
I took over operations of the Scindia Museum in 2002, and we’ve had a good run. Dedicated to Jivaji Rao Scindia, it occupies about 35 rooms of the Jai Vilas Palace. While the palace was built back in 1874, the museum was established in 1964, and is well-known for its collection of manuscripts, sculptures, coins, paintings, weapons. Our #chandeliers and model silver train are world-famous, but the maintenance of palaces and artefacts is an expensive and #tedious affair. The going has never been easy, but we managed to keep going, slowly. The strength of our team grew, and we were able to employ a lot more people to work on the museum. We finally completed our website.
But it’s not simply a matter of advertising a museum or hotel; we work on marketing Gwalior and #MadhyaPradesh as a destination. We worked towards getting more flights to come in, and more passengers on those flights.
We depend almost entirely on tourists. They arrive curious to explore, and shop, and they leave with the stories of small, historically rich and quirky towns. There are a plethora of palaces, castles, forts, history, legends and more in Madhya Pradesh. In #Chanderi, our craftsmen weave magic from the threads in their looms and sell their exquisite creations for a fraction of the retail price. Sarees by Rama and Kothari are beautiful too. But we have cool new local brands too, like Amrutam skincare, and clothing by Chambal. Eat the best laddoos at Bhaduras and kachoris from AS Kachoriwala. The stunning Killa Kothi on the fort is a must-visit, situated on the Scindia estate, and run by the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Board. Our forests and reserves like Panna and Bandhavgarh boast some of the best tiger sightings in India. Our jungles are the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. Yet, even today, many Indian and international travellers have not discovered the treasures of this heart of India. It is a chicken-and-egg situation: we need more tourists to visit in order to gain sufficient funds to conserve and maintain our natural and cultural heritage, which will, in turn, attract more tourism.
The rise of #COVID19 has accelerated the process of digitization and the use of technology in museums around the world. My sincere hope is that we manage to leap into the future along with retaining a foot in the past: Virtual tours to guide you through revolutionary artillery, antique furniture, and exquisite rooms that you can only imagine. But with that, we want to be able to tell you stories that may sound like fairy tales but are most certainly true. One of my personal favorites is the fact that eight elephants were made to walk on the roof of the Darbar Hall in the Jai Vilas Palace to ensure it could withstand the weight of two of the world’s largest crystal chandeliers, weighing more than 2.5 tonnes each! (They are still spectacular and majestic to look at, but you can only imagine what it is like to clean them!) Perhaps in the future, we can not only show you the details of these masterpieces but use 3D projections to recreate the elephants moving along the roof! The possibilities are endless and we must keep looking for new and exciting opportunities.
At the same time, as custodians of this tremendous treasure of architecture, lifestyle, art, and most importantly a Maratha museum in northern India, we realise that there is much that cannot be replicated and delivered via the #internet. We want you to come, touch, feel and experience what we have to offer. I cannot possibly recreate the moment of excitement that people feel when they arrive at the home of a Chanderi weaver, and have a cup of tea, and listen to the story and history of weaving against the famous Madhya Pradesh sunset. There is something special about coming to a beautiful property like ours for a festival and to be fully immersed in the past for two complete days, sampling ancient recipes with authentic ingredients, and listening to old caretakers with memories of the days gone by. And yet, you can do so along with many others, who come from all across India and all parts of the world. It is an extraordinary mix of old and new, the past and present, and singularly unique. You cannot transport the ambience, vibe or energy; it is a coming together of so many moving parts.
So, as we try and go digital to keep you engaged with us, and as we pray for things to settle down soon and this tragic time to end, I hope you will add Madhya Pradesh, Gwalior and the Scindia Museum to your travel bucket list and come visit us when you can. Please do travel more in India and discover our riches and secrets with your family and friends. We will be waiting to welcome you. Let our chandeliers be your guide, come take a seat at our table, and let the silver train pass you some treats.
Credit: Conde Nast Traveller