Meenakshi Devi: Meet the Maharani rooting for social change

PHORUM DALAL | Mon, 10 Oct 2016-04:28pm , Mumbai , DNA
Whether it’s education or empowerment of women, Her Highness Maharani Meenakshi Devi is rooting for change in the modest town of Kishangarh, finds out Phorum Dalal
She’s feisty, it’s evident from the moment she walks into Phool Mahal Palace, adjascent to Kishangarh Fort. Now a hotel with only 12 rooms that overlook the Gundalao lake, the palace was once a garden palace (called Payandaz Bagh) at the foot of the fort. The pallu of Her Highness (HH) Maharani Meenakshi Devi’s chiffon pink saree is draped around her and ends in a twirl, firm around her finger. She elegantly takes a seat at the table next to her husband, 20th generation Maharaja Brajraj Singh Bahadur, who eases us into Rajput history.
He shares some interesting trivia about the tradition of naming queens after the place they came from. Jodhabai, he tells us, was from Jodhpur and Udaipuri—Aurangzeb’s wife—was from Udaipur. Meenakshi Devi, on the other hand, came from Himachal.Early on, the maharani realised that while she was a custodian of her heritage and tradition, she was also in a powerful position to motion a wave of change. “I am a link in a chain, with a responsibility to ensure that the chain stays strong. Ideas are going to have a domino effect and change will not happen overnight.But we must write our own history,” she smiles.
Education Goals
In 1987, when Meenakshi Devi had to find a good school for her elder daughter, Vaishnavi, she found none.Instead of sending her daughter to a nearby city like Ajmer, she built Maharaja Sumed Singh Public School in honour of her father-in-law. “A good educational system in the town was lacking and this was an opportunity to bring the girl child forward by encouraging parents to send them to school,” says Maharani Devi, adding that she still teaches at the school, History being her favourite subject.“We encourage youngsters to move out for better education. But we explain to them the importance of returning and giving back to improve the city,” says Meenakshi Devi,who proudly tells us that girls too are breaking boundaries.
A girl wanted to study law in Jodhpur. But as her parents didn’t have sufficient funds, we helped her set up an online jewellery store. She made enough money, and today she is pursuing a career of her choice. Two teenage girls, Sakshi Pareek and Muskaan Rathi have published books—The Speaking Forest and Sangona: The Sun. “We have youth coming back to start NGOs, while some take their family business forward,” shares Maharani Devi, who also instills confidence in her students. “I always speak to the girls who hit puberty and begin to hunch and lack confidence. I teach them to accept their bodies and never doubt their capabilities.” To empower the local women, holed up in their homes, the Maharani helped them on the road to financial independence by getting them to stitch uniforms for the children. And when the Heritage hotels were launched in the 1990s, she encouraged them to take up full-time jobs.“The idea was to introduce them to a work environment,” she says.
Recognising the talent of several artists in and around Kishangarh, in 2000, she set up Kishangarh Art Gallery. It is now run by her daughter Vaishnavi as Studio Kishangarh.“Their paintings are a family effort; the man will do the outline of the drawing, the daughter will fill in the colours, and the wife would take over when she is free. Today, with no patronage, the art is just an imitation of iconic works and is completely commercialised. Vaishnavi makes contemporary renditions of the artwork on apparel and handicrafts, ensuring they interest a modern buyer,” Meenakshi Devi explains. Interestingly, the rooms at the hotel are all adorned with modern artworks of the traditional motifs.
Women Empowerment
Our conversation shifts to Rajput history and Meenakshi Devi tells us that the women were very strong. “Sadly, they were laden with so much jewellery, which caged them in one place. With several adornments, a lady would spend all day dressing up,” says Meenakshi. While the Maharani adheres to some age-old customs, she ensures that the women understand they are equal to men and can go out. “There was a time when the women were not allowed to go to the well to fill water and would wait for the men to bring it in the evening, without being able to quench their thirst all day. I encouraged them to be independent.” Thus, she made her own history!

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