HYDERABAD: In Gujarat, Navratri is a festival of dance, gaiety and endless fun. Those nine sacred days, apart from fasting, feasting and worshipping the Divine Mother, people are totally immersed in preparing for the evening’s Dandiya Raas or Garba. Rightly called the cultural capital of Gujarat, Vadodara is the most sought-after place to celebrate this unique festival. Dressed in a riot of traditional bright colours, women sparkle in “chaniya cholis” and “bandhani dupattas” whose abhla (mirror work) reflect myriad emotions while the necklaces, bangles and long oxidised earrings sway in equal rhythm. Men revel in ethnic “kedias” and “pyjamas”, sporting oxidised “kadas” and necklaces that vie for attention with the most attractive turbans. The reds, pinks, yellows and oranges merge to a splash of colours. The Dandiya Festival of United Way of Baroda is a great attraction for all and it has now become internationally famous. Almost fifty thousand people dance on the grounds simultaneously to electrifying music.
Though the traditional Garba music was acoustic, principally composed of drums and singing, of late, people started to use amplified sound systems or a blend in the form of a live band with modern instruments. The traditional dance steps too were simple, though over the years people have been inventing more complex steps. Modern garba is heavily influenced by Dandiya Raas, a dance usually performed by men. The merger of these two dances has formed the high-energy dance that is seen today. The whole spectacle is a visual feast and people travel from far and wide to witness the nine-day ‘United Way Garba Mahotsav’ in Vadodara that takes place on the expansive grounds, accommodating almost one lakh people. And exactly that is where I landed with others, to see this marvellous phenomenon. We spent an entire evening and basked in the ‘Raas Garba’. Later we have also gone shopping to find out where these beautiful dresses are procured from: it is a different world altogether. One needs enormous patience, time, talent to spot the best and the knack to haggle for the least price!
The next day we visited Lakshmi Vilas Palace, the magnificent residence of the royal family of Baroda. Photography is not allowed inside the palace and only mobile phone cameras are allowed for the exteriors (no regular cameras anywhere in the premises). We had no choice but to walk around the palace in the hot sun and click some pictures with our cell phones. The audio guide that was handed over stopped working after some time, but only after giving some information: Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III built it in 1890 with Major Charles Mant as the chief architect. It had taken twelve years to build and had cost around £180,000. Reputed to have been the largest private dwelling built till date and four times the size of Buckingham Palace, this beauteous structure features the Indo Saracenic style of architecture. It has the traditional arrangement of an Indian palace – with three distinct and separate parts for the public rooms, Maharaja’s private apartments, and the ladies’ quarters respectively but many new rooms to suit the Baroda family’s increasingly western lifestyle were also included like the stately dining rooms, billiard rooms, and great apartments for distinguished European visitors. The best elements of many periods of Indian architecture with some of the functional touches and decorative flourishes of different European architectural styles were incorporated. The sheer size of the palace (the frontage was over five hundred feet long) made it possible to include all these elements without creating stylistic havoc.
At the time of construction, the palace boasted the most modern amenities such as elevators and the interior is reminiscent of a large European country house. It still remains the residence of the Royal Family: only a part of the palace is open to the public. Its ornate Darbar Hall, where pigeons were flitting in and out freely (no one checked their entry tickets!), is sometimes the venue of music concerts and other cultural events. It has a Venetian mosaic floor, Belgium stained glass windows and walls with intricate mosaic decorations. Outside of the Darbar Hall is an Italianate courtyard of water fountains. The palace houses a remarkable collection of old armoury and sculptures in bronze, marble & terracotta by Fellici. The sprawling grounds were well landscaped and had some sculpted peacocks.
The Palace complex measures over 500 acres and houses a number of buildings.
Among them, the Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum was originally constructed as a school for the Maharaja’s children. Today a large number of works of art belonging to the Royal family are displayed in the museum. The most remarkable of these is the fabulous collection of the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, who was specially commissioned by the then Maharaja of Baroda. The collection includes portraits of the Royal family in addition to his famous paintings based on Hindu mythology. The Maharaja constructed a miniature railway line, which circled the mango orchard within the palace compound, to take his children from the school to the main Lakshmi Vilas Palace. It must have been real fun those days to ride in the mini rail from home to school and back. Oh! The fanciful, pampered royal childhood!!
(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer; she blogs at vijayaprataptravelandbeyond.com)