Taking Palace Chic Global

Twenty-two-year-old Princesss Gauravi Kumari of Jaipur is one busy Gen-Zer. Just back from a trip to Istanbul and Cappadocia, she is already at City Palace in Jaipur working with rural women trained and employed by Princess Diya Kumari Foundation (PDKF), named after her mother. The women, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds, have their own space in the palace where they stitch traditional Rajasthani hand-block printed fabrics into fashionable dresses, tops, shirts and Indianwear for women, men and children. As well as fun accessories such as crochet bags, scrunchies and headbands, for sale at The PDKF Store at City Palace that was launched in March.

The store, a brainchild of Princess Gauravi and a French designer, is a mix of local handicrafts and royal patronage, but for an international clientele. “After my graduation (from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, focusing on media and fashion business), during lockdown, I started to take interest in PDKF,” says the tall and willowy Gauravi, who made a splash at Le Bal (a debutante’s ball) in Paris with her brother, Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur. “I took on the responsibility of working on designs and outreach of the foundation (started in 2013).” Pre-Covid, all items produced by the women were sold to tourists visiting City Palace. Covid-19 took its toll as tourist arrivals stopped. So, she started The PDKF Store with French designer and friend Claire Deroo, and introduced trendy, contemporary products made with traditional techniques. “We also created an e-store to give women a wider platform.”

These women artisans, who work from six centres (Jaipur, two in Sawai Madhopur, Princess Diya’s constituency, Aidana, Deogarh and Ajmer) use block prints and hand embroideries. “Modern design patterns and trending colour schemes and combinations make the products globally appealing. My biggest inspiration is the City of Jaipur and its colours. Every corner of City Palace is inspiring.” That is why the magical white and blue Chhavi Niwas–used by Gauravi’s ancestors to enjoy monsoon rains, and now, an Instagrammable corner of Jaipur–comes to mind when you look at powdery blue pastel dresses and crop tops of The PDKF Store. Use of waste materials and natural dyeing makes the process sustainable. “We’re mixing trendy with traditional and working on new designs and ideas,” she says.

Gauravi wants to keep continuing the work of her mother, Princess Diya, who wanted to empower the women of Rajasthan. The foundation aims to make the women financially independent. It has trained 1,000 rural women in eight years. PDKF also runs programmes for women’s health and hygiene. Its Shiksha Diya Project gives scholarships to underprivileged girls. A recent project offers free courses in stitching, computer skills, beauty therapy and tourism.

Rajasthani hand-block printed dresses, tops, shirts and Indianwear, as well as fun accessories at The PDKF Store.
Rajasthani hand-block printed dresses, tops, shirts and Indianwear, as well as fun accessories at The PDKF Store.

Gauravi manages the rural women at Badal Mahal. With many role models in her family such as her mother, father, grandmother Rajmata Saheb Padmini Kumari and grandfather late His Highness Brigadier Sawai Bhawani Singh (a decorated war hero from the Parachute Regiment), she says the most important thing she has learnt is to be humble.

She is firmly anchored in her heritage, but also draws inspiration from the world, from the streets of New York City. “Everywhere you look, from museums to cafes and boutique stores, there’s inspiration,” she says. “A new season of fashion or new trends can be seen just walking around in SoHo or Upper East Side. I looked at concept stores there and took ideas such as interactive counters, colourful ceilings, coffee shop in the store,” she says, as she mulls the idea of opening a café at The PDKF store.

And her personal style values comfort above all else, especially in the blistering Jaipur heat. “Recently I’ve been wearing a lot of handblock-printed, colourful clothes from local brands and artisans. In this weather, it makes sense to wear cotton, flowy clothes.” I wonder if she would have worn something out of her store at Le Bal (she wore a Tarun Tahiliani gown)? “One hundred percent!” she says. Right now, she’s busy designing an evening collection.

The more Gauravi travels, the more she wants to expand, and even sell at big stores in world capitals. To her, it’s not just another brand. “It’s these 200 women who are the driving force behind The PDKF Store. It’s their story,” she says.

Princess Akshita M. Bhanjdeo of Mayurbhanj, at her home in Belgadia Palace.
Princess Akshita M. Bhanjdeo of Mayurbhanj, at her home in Belgadia Palace.

Princess of Social Enterprise Marries Fashion With Rural Life

Princess Akshita M. Bhanjdeo of Mayurbhanj grew up in a home where men spent more time buying jewellery than women. Identical sets of jewellery were made for daughters while they made jewelled suit buttons with the family’s coat of arms for themselves. One of Akshita’s most prized possessions is a bag given to her by her grandmother, Maharani Bharati Rajyalaxmi, who in turn received it from her father, King Tribhuvan of Nepal! “He got this bag from Europe – a simple box-cut clutch that’s very stylish – and gave it to my grandmother when she was four, her first designer bag,” she says.

Fashion is not the only thing on the mind of the 20-something alumnus of Bard College, US (she majored in Political Science and Human Rights). The daughter of Maharaja Praveen Chandra Bhanjdeo and Maharani Rashmi Kumari is in the midst of a hectic summer as she continues the legacy of her forefathers, who celebrated handmade jewellery, handlooms and saris. She has started a fashion label that makes clutches and home accessories from local sabai straw and tribal dokra metalwork, all the while balancing her full-time job with a Mumbai-based AI firm that helps cotton farmers increase yields.

Akshita has just found a place for herself in the tony Mumbai suburb of Bandra. She had been working from home during the pandemic when she co-founded fashion label Hasa Atelier with sister Mrinalika, but now she’s needed in Mumbai for visiting organic cotton farmers in Gujarat (India grows 25% of all cotton in the world). The firm she works for, Wadhwani AI, has an app to help farmers. “We give them funnel-shaped traps. Pests (American bollworm and pink bollworm) get stuck to a pheromone lining,” says Akshita. Farmers put these on paper and click a photo. Within seconds, the app tells them that they have, say, two weeks to spray a neem or jeev amrut organic pesticide.

Young Leader

Akshita has been nominated for Net Zero Fellowship 2022 by European Climate Fund and School of Policy and Governance for young leaders tackling climate change. Hasa Atelier is the perfect embodiment of Akshita’s work. “During the pandemic, there was huge surplus stock, as exports had stopped and people were cancelling orders,” she says, speaking about craftspersons working on the 4,000-year-old dokra metal art, black granite carvers and sabai grass artisan cluster in Mayurbhanj district. “So, my sister and I started our own label under which we could procure and market this stock.”

During the pandemic, there were no sales, and the sisters gave donations, rations and medical supplies to all three clusters they were supporting. Now, with Hasa Atelier, the artisans, who are supported by the government, which gives them sabai grass and equipment, set prices (Akshita guides them with market rates). “We never go lower than the price set by the government,” she says. “Our sale price is around 30% above that to cover transportation, shipping and quality check costs. We also work with local tailors for sewing.” She says before the pandemic, she would take her guests directly to artisans, eliminating the need for middlemen. “We are also happy to share contacts of the cluster with other designers.” Her label sells fashionable structured bags made of woven sabai grass with dokra door handles serving as straps. She’s also got black stone mortar-and-pestles (Odisha has ancient temples carved out of this stone), coasters, coloured wall hangings, doormats and dustbins—all of which are also displayed in rooms at Belgadia, the family’s 18th-century white Victorian two-storeyed, nine-bedroom palace set amid verdant trees. It is now a boutique homestay.

“It’s all about storytelling. We use sabai in Belgadia so that guests purchase from our new boutique,” says Akshita. “We even have a dokra artist who comes and sells his wares.” Neither of the sisters has a design background, but Mrinalika has an eye for the aesthetic and new trends, while Akshita has a knack for storytelling. “I tell people about organic colours we are using, about origins of sabai grass,” says Akshita, who is now a TEDx speaker.

Akshita narrates the story about the origins of sabai grass. “My great-grandfather Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanjdeo (who built Belgadia palace for his wife Maharani Sucharu Devi) went to Madagascar as part of a Commonwealth trip where he saw local tribes using sabai as a cash crop—whenever there was a drought, they would use sabai to make baskets and sell them for extra income,” says Akshita. “So, he brought it back to India and planted it all over Mayurbhanj, the only place in India where it’s grown. He was a visionary. He’s the one who invited the Tatas to set up mines in Mayurbhanj.” The sabai grass was later used to make ropes during World War II as it was highly climate resistant.

Princess Akshita M. Bhanjdeo of Mayurbhanj with tribal artisans (top). Bags, coasters, and accessories made from colourful local sabai straw, which often use tribal dokra metalwork.
Princess Akshita M. Bhanjdeo of Mayurbhanj with tribal artisans (top). Bags, coasters, and accessories made from colourful local sabai straw, which often use tribal dokra metalwork.

Akshita’s has got her biggest order for sabai products from Ahilya by the Sea, a Relais & Chateaux property in Goa owned by Indore’s Holkar royals (also the setting of Deepika Padukone-starrer Gehraiyaan). “Yeshwant Rao Holkar ordered sabai grass baskets and dustbins for his hotel, and they look really beautiful in the photos he sent us,” says Akshita. She says sabai products are easy to customise and women at the cluster can replicate almost anything. “They use a needle and thread, no machines,” she says.

Akshita also supports a local handloom school in Mayurbhanj which has a rich history in handlooms (tussar silk sarees come from there). It was set up by an NGO run by Bindu Vinodhan to revive Odisha weaves. “She’s brought back looms which haven’t been seen in four decades.” Akshita has also been lobbying for a GI tag for sabai and Odisha handlooms and handicrafts. “For me, the fashion story has always been a mix of policy and pop culture,” she says. “You can make it popular in pop culture but how do you ensure that laws and policies work for people in the long term?”

So, while she’s experimenting with tiny dokra metal animals or trays, she’s also looking at tapping handicrafts from other states. She’s looking at beaded necklaces from Jhabua, Indore (her elder sister is married into the Jhabua royal family). She’s sent a few sabai bags to Gwalior Maharani Priyadarshini Scindia (wife of Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia) for lining her bags with chanderi silk. “We want to collaborate with designers from other states,” says Akshita. “Other former princely states could also use this. With a bit of aspirational finesse, you can upscale the product and make it trendy.” Akshita gives the example of Japanese handicrafts, like pottery, which command premium prices and are bought as an investment.

Jewellery Shines

Her dream is to collaborate with other royal houses. For a year during the pandemic, she led Kharkhana Chronicles, a platform which introduced people to fashions and textiles from erstwhile royal families, in a digital format, and allowed people to access artisanal work (like chanderi, bandhani from Gujarat or Mysuru silk) of each royal family’s region so that money can flow to artisans. She dreams of having a textile exhibition from all royal families in Mumbai along the lines of The Met and the MoMa.“We have the network and access. The pie is big enough for everyone. When we come together, there is so much noise we can make,” she says.

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