Sunday, May 4, 2014

More Chronicles from Central India: The Holkar Connection

Every city or region has its pre-eminent heroes. In Bangalore where I used to live, it was clearly Kempe Gowda. The main bus stand, an important thoroughfare in the heart of the city, a hospital and now the airport are all named after him. In Chennai where I grew up, Annadurai was the clear favourite and his name adorned state-owned transport companies, an important relatively new locality of the city, the city’s most important road, and, yes, the international terminal of the airport (the domestic terminal is named after Kamaraj!). Here, in the Malwa region, and more specifically in Indore, Devi Ahilyabai Holkar has a dominant presence with her name on the university, a large market and, of course, the airport!

Manik Bagh Palace

The footprint of the Holkars is clearly visible in this region. And, everyone likes to have a Holkar connection. When I visited the office of the Commissioner of Excise and Service Tax, he showed me around with pride the Manik Bagh Palace, a heritage building where his office is located. This Palace was built in the 1930s by a German architect, Eckart Muthesius for the young Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar who took office in May 1930. It was built in the European style of the time, and reportedly fitted with furniture, equipment and art works from Germany. Fortunately, the Excise department has made an effort to maintain the building well, and it still has a quiet elegance going back to those times. (The palace apparently came into the possession of the government following the abolition of privy purses in the 1970s).


Just down the road from IIM Indore, on the way to the airport, lies a sprawling complex of the Department of Atomic Energy call the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT). The main entrance to the complex on the main road has tight security and doesn’t really let on that there is a large scientific complex inside. RRCAT was set up in the 1980s to house some of the laser physics and accelerator development work that was earlier being done in BARC, Mumbai.

I attended the RRCAT annual day soon after my arrival in Indore, and was quite amazed to see the scale of activity inside the complex. Those were early days in Indore and I wasn’t clued into the importance of the Holkar connection. But, yes, RRCAT has one as well. In the middle of the campus (and invisible from the road) is the picturesque Sukhniwas lake with a small “palace” on one edge. Frankly, “palace” appeared to be an exaggeration, the building looks like a large outhouse. But it was apparently a summer getaway for the Holkars, and the RRCAT officer who showed me around was proud of the Holkar connection! The senior BARC scientist who presided over the Foundation Day spoke about how they had their own lake unlike other institutions which tried to create artificial ones!


Young Indians (YI), the “junior” wing of CII, gave me a chance to visit another Holkar monument, Rajwada, in the heart of the city. Rajwada was originally built by the Holkars in Maratha style in the 18th century. YI organized an event inside Rajwada with special permission from the Archaeology department in February. It was certainly a stunning backdrop for a morning concert given by Gautam Kale, a versatile musician from Indore.


But the institution that has the most visible connection to the Holkar name is DAVV, or Devi Ahilya Vishwa Vidyalaya. The university (which started with the simple name of University of Indore) and I have something in common: we both turned 50 this year! In my short stay in Indore, thanks to the generosity of DAVV Vice Chancellor Dr. DP Singh, I have already participated in two events of the university. I gave a talk on 8 Steps to Innovation as a part of the University’s Golden Jubilee Lecture series in March, and I was a guest of honour at the Golden Jubilee Foundation Day last week.

DAVV is one of those typical Indian universities which not only has its own departments (focusing on postgraduate studies), but a whole lot of affiliated colleges (280 in the case of DAVV). The university is proud to be rated as an “A” grade university by NAAC, apparently the only university in Madhya Pradesh to enjoy this distinction.

The Governor of MP, Shri Ram Naresh Yadav, presided over the Golden Jubilee Foundation Day. Babuji, as he is popularly called, belongs to a more gentle and refined political world of yore. His heroes are still Gandhiji and Madan Mohan Malaviya and other leaders of our freedom struggle. I was impressed by his concern for the university and its people. He reads a lot, and he recounted with passion some of his ongoing efforts to have mistakes removed from history textbooks.

The university took the positive step of inviting former vice chancellors and rectors to the event, and this was particularly appreciated by the Governor. Incidentally, the Governor was quite emphatic that he didn’t want to be referred to with honorifics such as “Your Excellency.”

The evening of the Foundation Day featured an energetic ghazal concert by Ahmed Husain and Mohammed Husain. Both of them can’t be young, but the energy and enthusiasm they put into their singing would put several young people to shame. The audience (particularly the students) reciprocated in full measure with spontaneous applause and support.


Indore has a number of sightseeing hotspots in its vicinity. I haven’t had much of a chance to check them out, but the first one I visited turned out to have a strong Holkar connection as well. Maheshwar is on the banks of the Narmada and was at one time the capital of the Holkar kingdom. It’s a pretty small town which still manages to retain some of its charm. 

I particularly liked the temple on the banks of the Narmada and looking across the wide expanse of water. So many of our rivers have become pale shadows of their past, that it’s really nice to see so much water and life along the river.

The Holkars still retain several connections with the town. The descendants of the royal family run a hotel and, more importantly, a weaving centre to keep alive the textile traditions of the region. We couldn’t visit the centre itself as it was closed, but we did manage to pick up a few things from their sales outlet!

Does IIM Indore have a Holkar Connection?

Does IIM Indore have a Holkar connection too? I thought we were not blessed till the people who run the Shiv Mandir on campus claimed to me the other day that the Mandir goes back to the Holkar era. For the record though, the sign next to the temple says it was built in 1972!

[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]

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