For royals, philanthropy is a double-sided coin, which aims at supporting the underprivileged as well as preserving the culture of their princely states
By Reya Mehrotra
At a time when monarchy is being questioned, we find out how many of them have walked out of their archaic worlds & are finding unique ways to stay relevant, by preserving and promoting heritage and culture, becoming entrepreneurs or taking to mainstream politics.
When Meghan Markle and Prince Harry sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey recently, they broke many conventions. During the interview, the couple talked about their trysts with royal conventions and challenges and how they coped.
Since distancing themselves from the royal family, the couple have dived deeper into their philanthropic ventures. They even announced the launch of Archewell, their charitable organisation, which works towards conservation, female empowerment, gender equality and other issues. Needless to say, even after leaving the royal family, their popularity remains undiminished, a fact attested by the 17.1 million views their interview with Winfrey garnered on the first day itself.
With the establishment of governments, the role of the royalty in many countries might have diminished to a titular one, but they remain an intrinsic part of history and culture. In a rapidly changing world, however, it is imperative that one evolves and that’s why many royals have adapted to changing times in a bid to stay relevant. From being owners of businesses to promoting local cultures and art, modern royals are walking out of their archaic worlds and finding unique ways to keep themselves relevant in the 21st century.
A royal endeavour
Not just Harry and Meghan, other members of the British royal family have also broken the mould. Take, for instance, Harry’s cousin and Princess Anne’s son Peter Phillips. He has worked at Jaguar, Royal Bank of Scotland and even has his own sports management firm. His sister Zara Tindall is an equestrian who has performed at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Their first cousins, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie, too, hold prominent positions. While the former is the VP of partnerships and strategy at Afiniti, an American software company, the latter works as associate art director at Hauser and Wirth, a London art gallery.
Harry and Meghan themselves have signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Netflix to make documentaries, docu-series, scripted shows, films and children’s programmes through their production house Archewell Productions. Another deal has been struck with Spotify through Archewell Audio.
Closer home, too, we have many such examples. Take, for instance, Princesses Mrinalika and Akshita M Bhanjdeo, the daughters of Praveen Chandra Bhanjdeo, the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty in India’s princely state of Mayurbhanj in Odisha. The sisters plan to make Mayurbhanj a model town and a sustainable smart city. Recently, they threw open the gates of the 18th-century Belgadia Palace to visitors after turning it into a sustainable boutique hotel. A percentage of funds from the hotel are earmarked for use by The Mayurbhanj Foundation, which conducts activities to increase funds in the rural economy.
Akshita calls herself a “social entrepreneur” and wants to build on her ancestors’ legacy. They, however, are not the only entrepreneurs in their family. “My family has a long line of entrepreneurship and innovation… all members of my family are working,” says 26-year-old Akshita, who was instrumental in turning media attention towards the Similipal forest fires by tweeting about it. She even visited the area with her mother. Apart from being directors of Belgadia Palace, Akshita works as a communications strategist with The Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a non-profit research institute developing AI solutions for social good, while Mrinalika is a yoga practitioner and facilitates spiritual retreats.
Like the Bhanjdeo sisters, Princess Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil, from the royal family of Bhavnagar in Gujarat, is doing her bit to take the family name forward. After witnessing a decline in metal craft among artisans of Sihor (a municipality in Bhavnagar district and once the seat of her ancestors) owing to mass production of utility goods, she decided in 2017 to work towards reviving Sihor metal craft. “My team and I researched old designs on artefacts, listing out the ones that stood out. We then brought in artisans who were facing financial issues and allowed them to expand on their creativity with each piece, keeping in mind the general theme and idea that we presented,” says 26-year-old Gohil, adding, “With the majority of our sales going towards these artisans and heritage walks being conducted in the town of Sihor, we have managed to start a movement to spread awareness, create a market and also encourage young individuals to take interest in this artistry.”
After completing her master’s in heritage management and conservation, Gohil in 2017 started Bhavnagar Heritage, an organisation that brings together heritage enthusiasts to preserve and promote the city’s heritage. Talking about her plans, the princess says, “Our current goal is to create good-quality artefacts that can be appreciated by present and future generations and also provide artisans and artists a platform to showcase their work and keep the traditions alive.”
The daughter of the king of Bhavnagar Vijayrajsinh Gohil, the 21st-century princess believes in moving with the times. “I view myself as an individual who has the power and responsibility to preserve and promote the rich heritage that one has been blessed with,” she says, adding that Indian royal families have always been patrons of art and culture, and are now taking custodianship of their history.
Apart from her initiatives, her family is involved in preserving their heritage properties, including Narayani Heritage, Gopnath Bungalow and Nilambag Palace, one of Gujarat’s oldest heritage hotels. A part of the palace is a boutique store, which promotes crafts of the region, including beadwork.
Another eminent royal family, the Wadiyars of south India, actively works and engages with the residents of Mysore and other neighbouring cities. It’s a startup, however, which is one of their most important ventures. Little Bunting is the brainchild of Trishikha Wadiyar, the wife of Yaduveer Krishnadatta Chamaraja Wadiyar, the present and 27th maharaja of Mysore. With Little Bunting, they aim to build a platform for children’s toys and apparel. The startup is a culmination of Wadiyar’s experience as a new mother and her efforts towards the conservation of Mysore’s heritage. “With the birth of my son, I noticed how tough it was to get toys, apparel and other children’s necessities from indigenous brands that were also practising sustainable, organic and environment-friendly means of manufacturing. Most often, the market would be flooded with plastic products. Given the heritage of our country and our many indigenous handicrafts and textile industries, I often wondered why we didn’t have a homegrown organic market for children’s products,” says Wadiyar, adding, “My startup caters to this problem and envisions itself as a one-stop shop for all indigenous brands that promote an organic and environment-friendly lifestyle.”
Through her efforts, Karnataka’s tradition of toymaking from the town of Channapatna is also getting promoted, helping give local heritage and handicrafts their due. “My aim is to bring more local artisans and brands and have them all on one platform,” says Wadiyar, who comes from the royal family of Dungarpur in Rajasthan.
The south Indian royal family of Arcot (Tamil Nadu), too, is working to preserve its heritage. Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali—the dewan and heir-apparent to Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali, the Prince of Arcot—is a philanthropist by passion and businessman by profession. Though he has his own software business, 48-year-old Ali says he doesn’t like to be tied down to one thing and keeps engaging in social and cultural events at his ancestral home Amir Mahal in Chennai. “We engage with the consulates of various countries to organise different events and also have bands from different parts of the world performing at the palace. The idea is to promote art and culture. We also support and organise the International Food Festival every year,” he says.
A musician and pianist himself, Ali has his own studio in his palace where he composes songs. Recently, his song Raaste was launched online by Oscar-winning musician AR Rahman. He has also scored music for Lucky Ali and has collaborated for various projects with singers and artists from around the country.
Then there is Jaidev Singh, the scion of a Rajasthani royal family. The son of Yuvraj Ijyaraj Singh of Kota, Singh works as an investment banking associate in Mumbai. “Since my time at Cornell University, I’ve been drawn to finance and wanted to learn about different industries and business models,” the 24-year-old shares. In Kota, his family is involved in various hospitality and event management businesses, including managing Brijraj Bhawan Palace Hotel, a boutique property that is also their home. Going forward, Singh wants to put Kota on the global map. “While Rajasthan gets its fair share of tourists, Kota is still undiscovered. People aren’t aware of what it has to offer. There is a lot to see that people don’t know about. I want to play my part in promoting the Hadoti region and putting it on the map as a tourist and cultural destination,” he says.
Another young royal is 22-year-old Padmanabh Singh, the maharaja of Jaipur. The youngest Indian king is a renowned polo player and has a fortune of billions with many ideas to expand the family empire. He was also among the few Indian royals to be included in the 2018 Forbes ’30 Under 30′ Asia List. In 2019, he opened to Airbnb a suite in Jaipur’s City Palace for guests to experience royalty.
An important aspect of being a royal is to be a people’s person and Princess Diana is the most famous example of this. One of the biggest causes that she stood for was HIV-AIDS. A 1987 picture of her in a hospital shaking hands with a patient broke stigma around the disease. She was also a regular visitor to London’s centres for the homeless and raised awareness around leprosy.
Though philanthropy existed among royals before Diana, the princess gave it a royal sheen. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, too, has her own set of causes, including a number of initiatives for children. The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, in fact, supports youngsters through various initiatives like Coach Core Foundation, which encourages youngsters in the UK to become involved with sports.
In India, too, a number of philanthropic foundations have been established by various royals. For instance, Diya Kumari, the mother of India’s youngest king Padmanabh Singh and daughter of former king Bhawani Singh, has a foundation that supports underprivileged women of Rajasthan. Clearly, for modern royals, philanthropy is a double-sided coin, which aims at supporting the underprivileged, as well as preserving the heritage and culture of their erstwhile princely states.
The politics of it
For most rulers, governance flows naturally in the blood. Not surprisingly then, many have taken to governance by entering politics. French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, is not only an important leader and the youngest president in France’s history, but also the co-prince of Andorra, a landlocked microstate between France and Spain. Like many modern-day monarchs, Saudi Arabian King Salman Bin, too, is an active politician managing Saudi affairs as its Prime Minister.
Then, of course, there is Queen Elizabeth who is actively involved in maintaining Britain’s relationship with other countries through her official state visits. Her role in politics, too, is too important to be overlooked. She also reserves the right to appoint the PM.
Bhutan’s active King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk has several diplomatic roles, too, as Bhutan has an established constitutional monarchy. He is the chancellor of Royal University of Bhutan, the patron of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the patron of Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies and the European Convention of Bhutan Societies, and president of Bhutan India Friendship Association. The royal government also provides free basic healthcare and a minimum of nine years’ basic education to all its citizens.
In India, the Scindias have made their presence felt strongly in politics. Jyotiraditya Scindia, the son of Madhavrao Scindia (who was also a politician from the Indian National Congress and a descendent of the Scindia dynasty of the Marathas), is a BJP politician. Former CM of Rajasthan and acting Queen of Dholpur, Vasundhara Raje Scindia is also a BJP politician. Her son Dushyant Singh has joined the BJP and is a Lok Sabha MP. Padmanabh Singh’s mother Diya Kumari has a distinguished career as a BJP MP. She entered politics in 2013 and is currently an MP from Rajsamand Lok Sabha constituency. Digvijaya Singh, the son of Raja Balbhadra Singh of Raghogarh (now Guna district of Madhya Pradesh) and the former CM of MP, is an active politician serving as a Rajya Sabha MP.
Belonging to a royal family active in politics, Prince Jaidev Singh of Kota shares the role royal families play in politics. “My grandfather and father have both been MPs and my mother is currently an MLA as well. Through their positions of elected office, they have sought to bring modernity and development to the region. Our role is to keep traditions and customs alive, and continue to be active members of our community,” he says.
Not all royals, however, have political ambitions. Take, for instance, Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali. “We believe that caste, creed and faith don’t matter and so keep away from religion-based politics. We keep good relations with the ruling and many of the opposition parties and have no political leanings,” he says.