Anshu Khanna is on a mission. For over a decade, she’s been trying to divert the conversation on luxury and royalty from international brands like Cartier and Rolls Royce, and bring it back to the heritage and legacy of India’s royalty.
Her tool? Royal Fables, a one-of-its kind revivalist bid to showcase the art, craft, textile and cuisine of Princely India. The initiative helps entrepreneurs from erstwhile royal families to conserve their legacy and heritage and offer it to people across the world. Every year, Khanna, a brand strategist, organises exhibitions across the country, recreating the “living room of the royals” and showcasing the entrepreneurs’ creations. One such exhibition was held in March in Bengaluru, in association with the city chapter of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI’s) women wing FLO.
Over 20 entrepreneurs were part of the part of the exhibition set up in the ballroom of The Leela Palace Bangalore. They were offering heirloom creations, from diamond jewellery to elegant chiffons, restored saris, pashmina shawls and skincare in a setting that resembled an artisanal luxury studio.
“The younger generations of Indian royal families are fiercely proud of their heritage. So much so that they don’t want to merely work towards maintaining their heritage, they are looking at ways to carry it forward, and they want to do it sustainably,” says Khanna, a recipient of the Nari Shakti Puraskar, who held the first Royal Fables exhibition in 2009 in Delhi. Since then, she’s taken the exhibition to the US, Dubai and Morocco, and has had a ringside view to a world where arts, crafts and textiles that enjoyed royal patronage meet the wider world under the sheen of luxury.
Starting with 10 families, she now has close to 70 families as part of the platform.
“During the initial years, I was doing it to give an expression to artisanal luxury, which was made in palaces, and to keep the crafts alive,” says Khanna, whose role today has evolved to one where “they (royal families and ateliers) do the production and I create markets that are congenial to them.”
Only made in India
As a concept, Khanna’s venture may be among the only platforms to showcase products and labels that have a direct royal connection. Over the past two decades, the platform has helped spawn some unlikely entrepreneurs and labels. Let’s take Bera Jackets by Kunwar Yaduveer Singh Bera, for example.
Bera is a small town in Rajasthan’s Pali district, known among adventurers as the country’s “Leopard Capital”. Singh wants to make Bera known for its outwear jackets as well. During the 1920s, Thakur Prithvi Singh Bera, son of Maharaja of Jodhpur and an avid polo player, ordered his royal tailors, known for their quilting skills, to make jackets. “There on, these jackets kept being made locally but there wasn’t any sort of branding or marketing done. Royal families who knew us and visitors who came down to Bera for holidays would buy these jackets because they liked them. We’d also gift them to international guests but that was that,” Singh says. As a family that is in the hospitality business and wildlife conservation, running a fashion label hardly figured in the scheme of things. For Singh, a hotel management graduate, the idea to start a label came after noticing the reactions of friends and colleagues to the Bera jacket. “I realised these jackets were popular and there was a market for them but there was a need to create an identity for them. Otherwise they’d just remain these cool but nameless jackets and the tailors who practised them wouldn’t have any incentives to continue with the craft,” Singh notes. And that is how his eponymous label was born in 2018.
Another such royal entrepreneur is Rajkumari Alka Singh of Pratapgarh, Awadh. She’s a revivalist known for the work she has done in restoring heritage tissue saris and the Awadhi royal cuisine. Over the past five years, Alka Singh, along with her daughter Yashodhara, has also been busy reviving royal skincare secrets that she was privy to while growing up in the palace, under the label Royal Beauty Rituals. “Royal Beauty Rituals offers you a sneak peek into the royal zenana of yore when all the ladies were engaged in making their own skincare products, whether it was kajal, lep (organic face/hair masks) or attar perfumes. I decided to revive these rituals because they are pure, organic and sustainable—ideas which are even more relevant today,” says Alka Singh. The beauty products that she is keen on popularising through her brand include organic hand-rolled kajal, neem-wood combs that are anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, a face lep made of 32 ingredients and the ruh motia attar. Alka Singh admits that her royal background piques everyone’s interest, which has helped her create a brand identity.
Like Yaduveer Singh and Alka Singh, there are scores of Indian royals among the “575 erstwhile princely states”, a number that Khanna mentions during the interview, who are engaged in ventures that are about either reviving or reinventing lost arts and crafts their families patronised. There’s Kanwarani Jaykirti Singh from Baria, Gujarat, who has for the past decade been working to bring back the tradition of handblock printing. There’s Umang Huteesing trying to restore the fine craft of patola. Then there’s Princess Vaishnavi Kumari of Kishangarh, Rajasthan, who has been adding some “truck and pop art” in traditional pichwai paintings. “This current generation of royals has realised they have to adapt to the time. Design has to move forward or else it will die,” says Khanna.
Agrees intellectual property rights (IPR) lawyer and brand evangelist Safir Anand, who’s part of the initiative. He says, “When I go to a foreign country, I find that every single thing I buy, be it tea, biscuit or crockery, says ‘By appointment of Her Majesty’. It troubles me as an Indian to see that when our country has all this royalty, and yet, we are nowhere in the picture. We need to create a global brand out of India’s new royal entrepreneurs.”