I was on cloud nine. Madhavrao Scindia was himself at the wheel. Renowned culture czarina Pupul Jayakar was in the passenger seat. And we were at the back —- yours truly and Madhu Jain, a journalist working with Sunday magazine then.
The Ambassador car was hurtling from Gwalior to Shivpuri, its needle sometimes touching 100. Obviously, the scion of Gwalior’s princely family liked to live in the fast lane. Other vehicles in the carcade, some of them imported luxury cars, were finding it difficult to keep pace.
Earlier, as the liveried chauffeur had pulled up outside the imposing Jaivilas Palace and opened its doors for passengers, Scindia dismissed him, asking him to come in the follow up vehicle.
Then the former prince himself opened the front passenger seat for Jayakar. He asked us to sit at the back; the driver had been shunted out to accommodate the journalists. The gracious Maharaja was being the perfect host, I thought.
It was December 1981. Scindia had invited Pupul Jayakar, then chairperson of All India Handicrafts Board, to visit Chanderi, the 300-year-old glorious cradle of superfine Chanderi sarees, whose first mention is found in the 16th century treatise, An-i-Akbari.
The fine craft was slowly dying as the weavers were at the mercy of unscrupulous middlemen. The quaint small town, nestling in Vindhyachal ranges, is part of the erstwhile Scindia empire, a dynasty known for its patronage of art and culture.
The idea behind the visit, we were told, was to persuade Jayakar to rescue the artisans of Chanderi. Madhu Jain had apparently been invited because she is an expert on art and culture. Why I had been invited, even now flummoxes me. I was based in Bhopal, covering MP for Indian Express.
I presume the prince-turned-politician had developed a fondness for me after I had written a series of reports on the royal family property dispute. The series was not very charitable towards his mother, Vijaya Raje Scindia, with whom the young prince was having a long-running feud.
As we stopped at Shivpuri for lunch, Scindia jumped from the car to open door for Jayakar. The highbred, Oxford-educated, handsome young prince —- he was 36 then — was on a charm offensive. He was simply irresistible.
Before feeding us a sumptuous lunch at his private guest house, he gave us a tour of the dynasty’s magnificently-carved marble cenotaphs, now a major tourist attraction.
A retinue was waiting at Shivpuri to welcome us. Among them was MP’s agriculture minister Digvijay Singh, who would later become the state’s chief minister. Summoned by the Maharaja, he had come to escort Jayakar to Chanderi.
Why so much fuss over the chairperson of Handicrafts Board? Jayakar was not just the culture czarina, but a personal friend of Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister. A word from her was enough to make or mar the career of any Congressman or woman.
Disregarding the advice of his mother, who was jailed by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, Madhavrao had contested the 1977 Lok Sabha election from Guna as a Congress-supported Independent candidate and later joined the ruling party. But despite enjoying a mass base and image of an honest politician, he had failed to find a place in Indira’s cabinet.
Once at Chanderi, we were taken first to its beautiful fort, where we had tea at its ramparts illuminated by the golden light of a glorious sunset. We visited looms and met weavers. Work finished, we drove to Lalitpur, near Jhansi, from where Jayakar, Scindia and others were supposed to board a train for New Delhi and I hoped to return to Bhopal.
It was quite late as we assembled in the dining hall of the government rest house at Lalitpur. Huge hot cases bearing the royal emblem, apparently packed from Shivpuri, appeared. Crockery was brought out. And the host, Madhavrao Scindia, announced: “All those going to Delhi must eat.”
Everyone started eating, except three of us who were not going to Delhi — me, Digvijay Singh and a Congress MLA who had accompanied us from Shivpuri. After they finished, the remaining food was packed back in hot cases to be carted back. Scindia shook hands with me and took off for Delhi.
Digvijay Singh vanished; he had to go somewhere else. I boarded the late night train for Bhopal along with the Congress MLA who was travelling to Bina for catching the connecting train to Guna.
Lalitpur used to be a sleepy place then and enveloped in thick winter fog that night it looked totally deserted. All stalls were closed. We boarded a slow-moving passenger train.
As the Congress MLA, who would become a minister later, got down at Bina, I scouted the platform for food. As I was taking my first bite of puri-bhazi, I espied the Congress MLA at another stall. Our eyes met. We smiled.
Was Scindia such a perfect host, I wondered.
First Print 4 November 2018