Forts and palaces turn into performance spaces

Historical structures are emerging as popular sites to engage with classical and folk music and dance

Art needs support. The Maharajas of yore and their palaces were often the base of patronage. Mysore, Baroda, Patiala, Jaipur, Gwalior, Tanjore, Travancore, Tripura… there were many flourishing dynasties that patronised legendary artistes such as Tansen, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Venkatalakshamma and Nagaratnammal of that era.

But times have changed. There is a new, though few in number, breed of aesthetically inclined and truly-cultured patrons. They may be quiet but their work is not. It is indeed strange how dance has returned to temples and palaces in less than 50 years. This resurgence has also encouraged heritage tourism and opened up royal palaces to common people. The palaces are dancing, and how!

Take for instance, master restorer Aman Nath of Neemrana Group. On the ramparts of the group’s flagship fort, every Saturday, an artiste of repute performs.

The 700 year-old fort Neemrana is located some 100 km outside Delhi on way to Jaipur. That means October-March (for it is too hot in summer months) every Saturday, guests staying there (and many who want to escape from the dust and drudgery of Delhi on weekends) get to partake not only of ancient culture but watch artistes of today performing exclusively for them. And no these are not normal tourist hotels — the dine-while-you-watch-some-local-dance kind. These offer a sit and see dance or music show at its amphitheatre.

Forts and palaces turn into performance spaces

Says the founder-head, Aman Nath, “I think we restored 32 properties in 18 States, but run 20 hotels today. I began Neemrana Fort with O.P Jain and Lekha Poddar. They exited when Francis Wacziarg entered.” Aman Nath provides patronage to over a hundred dancers every year. Add, musicians, painters, craftsmen and architects. Local skill development at its best.

Samundar khan regales audiences at Tijara, near Alwar, a beautiful palace fort lovingly acquired and restored by Aman Nath again. Each room and each area is named after an artist or a designer who have done the interiors. So there is an Anjolie Ela Menon Mahal with Laila Tyabji next door. Rakesh Thakore with Ritu Kumar next wing.

Forts and palaces turn into performance spaces

Baroda Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III was so far ahead in his times that when he married Princess Chimnabai of Thanjavur in 1883, as part of his dowry, two devadasis came to dance at the Baroda Court. That’s how Bharatanatyam came to the west of India, then North. When India became Independent, the Maharaja’s family donated most of his properties to the cause of education. Thus the M.S. (Maharaja Sayajirao) University of Baroda was born in 1949. Even his elephant stable was put to the cause of arts. Today most of its arts related departments are situated in stunning heritage buildings, the best being the Music College, now the Dance Department, sitting grandly by the lake — Sur Sagar. This was the first university in India to offer Fine Arts at graduate level. Giants headed key department— N.S. Bendre (Painting), Sankho Chaudhury (Scuplture), Mohan Khokar (Dance) and C.C. Mehta and J. Thakkar (theatre).

When India’s celebrated textile revivalist Prince Martand Singh of Kapurthala royalty was requested to help activate and restore Jodhpur’s Meharangarh fort 30 years ago by Maharaja Gaj Singh’s (fondly called Bapji) family trust, he enlisted the support of local artistes with puppet, dance, music and even fashion shows. Today, it is an open museum and vibrant palace where, on its ramparts, a huge desert music festival is held annually.

Says Dr. Karan Singh: “It is natural to put some of our old royal properties at the disposal of art, education or culture. Those who have done so in a big way — the Gaekwads or Bapji — remain longer in contemporary memory and posterity.”

Forts and palaces turn into performance spaces

Another example is Diggi palace in Jaipur, where the literature festival is held. Seems Patiala is soon going to follow suit. Don’t forget, there is a whole music gharana of Patiala, which Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, son Munnawar Ali, grandson Raza and of course, the popular Ajoy Chakraborty with daughter Kaushiki, represent.

Lucknow’s Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s royal complex was created for ‘Indrasabha,’ a first in operatic ballet, way back in the 19th century and is today a fine setting for cultural activities, including big dance and music festivals organised by the Uttar Pradesh Government.

The Seraikella palace, originally of Odisha, then Bihar and now Jharakhand, was fulcrum of Chhau activity in Chaitra Parva (mid-April). The king himself led the procession. Without royal patronage, Seraikella Chhau would not be alive today. From a humble palace, this art has gone global. Many such examples abound in Gwalior, where music has always been a palace-supported activity. And from there emerged the timeless music of Tansen. Then there is Raigarh, where Kathak got a foothold and boost.

Mysore continues to host the biggest spectacle of all, the Mysore Dasara, where millions come watch non-stop art activity for nine days. Imagine the range and the feast. At a smaller level, to sustain artistes, Mysore B. Nagaraj helms Articulate India, where the common man gets to see top dancers every third Sunday. Just last fortnight, three seniors — Shama Bhate, Ranjana Gauhar and Deepak Mazmudar performed.

Benaras for long provided support to many gharanas and today, its ghats are spaces for dance and music with the Ganga festival and daily aarti that many come to watch. The ghats of the Ganga in Rishikesh, Haridwar and Benaras provide varied art activity.

The North-East has become a hub for cultural activity out in the open. The Hornbill festival of Nagaland, the Raas Festival of Manipur, the Tripura Tribal arts and Assam’s Sattriya dance that is now showcased in a big way.

India’s uniqueness is its flexibility — a stage can be simply the steps of ghats, sound can be one mike and the audiences that throng can be both connoisseurs and uninitiated. It is obvious why India’s cultural activities never lose their momentum. Art, here, is driven by something divine.

Forts and palaces turn into performance spaces

Stately affairs

Each State mounts its own festival against the backdrop of a landmark monument with the ASI keeping a watchful eye. Thus were born the Konark, Khajuraho, Ajanta and Mahabalipuram Dance festivals, run by State Tourism Departments. Speaking of which, the biggest and best happens in Kerala. Its Nishagandhi Festival brings audience in thousands and the Tourism Department does many small and big events the whole year. There is not much money, even fee for artistes often is paltry, but art activity thrives. In Odisha, the temple spaces are used for festivals and many popular ones have come up in the last decade. Odisha Tourism and Culture Department has sensitised babus, who care for local culture

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