Today, as we roam about with our heads in our clouds and feet somewhere mid-air, we almost forget to check our roots. As most of us go about the rat race, ignoring our history and obsessing over the future – there is someone who is doing it differently.
What would you do if your ancestors owned a magnificent fort in the famous state of Rajasthan, which was then passed down to you? It is fact, not fiction. It is not the stuff of ancient royal stories – it is the stuff of the 21st century. While most would go gaga over it and start replaying scenes from famous movies that featured Rajasthan as a backdrop in their minds, a bold lady, Priyamvada Singh, decided to breathe back life into the beautiful fort that was built by her ancestor.
“My ancestor Rawat Amar Singh Ji was granted the Jagir of Meja by the Maharana of Mewar in 1870, and that’s when Amar Singh Ji got the Meja Fort constructed. Its current custodian is my father Rawat Jitendra Singh Ji,” says Priyamvada, an enthusiastic 35-year-old woman who has lived in this 148-year-old fort, all alone to restore it.
Priyamvada, who once worked as a freelance content strategist for shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati, Dus Ka Dum, India’s Got Talent, Jhalak Dikhlaa Jaa and on projects with various government bodies before that has taken up a unique resolution.
Born in Ajmer and brought up all across Rajasthan as her father worked for the state government, Priyamvada played on the steps of the fort as a child.
“I remember visiting the fort right from my childhood. We used to go for few days during functions like Navratri Sthaapna or Diwali Puja,” she says and adds, “Some of my unforgettable memories of the fort as a child are of playing games like hide & seek and seven tiles with the village children, listening to stories from the old men and just having fun running up & down across so many staircases and passages in the fort.”
Priyamvada has always been fascinated by architecture and travel. Talking about her love for both, she says, “I love to travel. I’ve already travelled across most of India and several countries in Europe and Asia. In fact, there were times when I chose to work on some really ill-paying projects only because they involved travel to exotic places. Also, I was always fascinated by architecture. And I am not only fascinated with the architecture of Rajasthan but architecture anywhere in the world.”
The Meja Garh or Meja Fort is a 4 floors high and 48,000 sqft wide structure with a total of 60 rooms! And Priyamvada lives alone in it! Meja is a small village with a population of around 10,000 people approximately 250 km away from Jaipur.
So how was it for a woman who lived for around 9 years in Mumbai to live in in a small village with minimal facilities all alone?
“Before the fort could be restored, the scepticism and cynicism of the villagers needed to be overhauled. They expected me to dash for an AC in the city on the first days of the summer of 2012 – particularly when the electricity went away for its daily snooze. Quite frankly, I expected to be that person too, and like a backup plan had not relinquished my rented apartment in Mumbai! Yet, the summer passed and I stayed put. That’s how it all began,” says Priyamvada.
When asked about how her family reacted to her resolve of restoring the ancestral fort she answered, “They were obviously concerned and protective towards me. They were worried how I would manage there with such minimal amenities because I was so used to the life of a metro. My father being in a demanding job was not able to give much time to this project and my mother doesn’t keep very well, so it was not possible for her to live in the fort and help me. As the time passed, and they saw things moving in a positive direction, they got more and more comfortable with the idea of me living there all alone.”
“Living in minimal amenities was definitely very challenging in the first few days but as the days passed and work progressed, my passion took over me and somehow the amenity issues didn’t seem to matter anymore,” she adds.
Even the thought of leaving behind a well-settled career in a metro and settling in a village to restore a humongous fort single-handedly is scary – how would the real work be? It would need a strong resolve. Where did this resolve stem from in Priyamvada’s mind? When did she first think of it?
“I was on the sets of Kaun Banega Crorepati in my avatar as a content developer. I was playing a mock rehearsal round and while this game was actually just a test run of questions and other technicalities before we went on-floor with real contestants, I could feel that Mr. Amitabh Bachchan’s interest in my desire to renovate and restore my ancestral fort at Meja was genuine.
Even today, I wonder what prompted me to blurt out this personal little childhood secret at such a time! A hush-hush dream I barely ever had the courage to whisper even to myself. It was on that day I realized for myself how deeply I cared for the legacy of my family and that while I was following the modus operandi of job, career and money prescribed by the modern world, my soul was elsewhere”, she adds.
This is what happened after.
“After that fateful day on the sets of KBC, on my next visit home, I decided impromptu to take a day trip to the fort. And what a sight greeted me! The place was a sunken shadow of what I remembered from my childhood. Neighbours had encroached into the property. A portion of the fort was being used as a public path, a shortcut from one side of the village to the other. Those living adjacent to the fort were using one corner to dump garbage. Trees were growing out of walls at certain places and the roof had patches of water seepage. Several rooms were taken over by a variety of owls, bats and other creepy-crawlies. “
“Dismayed and disheartened would about sum up my state of mind that day. Returning home to Ajmer, all I could think of was the state of Meja fort. By the time I reached home, I had firmly made up my mind that something had to be done and it had to be done by me. Expecting a strong wave of opposition, I braced myself for a battle. Surprisingly, the only misgivings my family had about my grand new enterprise was that they were not sure if they would be able to find the time to help me with the project and were reluctant to have me – a single girl – stay all alone at the fort. Soon, they all mustered the courage to squish their doubts and we jumped headlong into the exciting idea. While many dreamed, the legwork had to be done by me alone and the first step was packing my bags from Mumbai and setting up inside the fort,” Priyamvada reminisces.
She was not really afraid of ‘staying alone’ at the Meja Fort as it is situated right in the middle of the village. But there were other challenges. When Priyamvada first moved in, the villagers thought that she was crazy. They did not take her seriously. And it was not just about her staying there but also about the work that she wanted to get done in the fort.
“Since my family visited the fort at least 1 or 2 times a year, there were 2-3 rooms which had an open-casing electric connection and one room had water connection. The rest of the fort didn’t even have electricity! There were rooms which had not been opened for the last 60-70 years so you can imagine the kind of things piled up there! We had a damaged boundary wall so the premises were easy to trespass and not in a great condition,” she says.
Furthermore, while talking about some of the biggest challenges she faced, she says, “First of all was to put together the team. Like I mentioned before, men with their patriarchal mindsets were not very enthusiastic to take orders from me! So then getting all the women to join in was the first challenging task. The cleaning process was physically very laborious for me as I had to work hands-on with the woman squad and guide them at every step.”
She adds, “Then as we progressed to the boundary construction, we wanted to do it using the authentic techniques like dry masonry in stone, choona (lime) for plaster etc. Again, it was a very challenging task to find masons and artisans who know these techniques and are willing to work with these techniques. We employed old masons primarily to revive old construction techniques like dry masonry or working with choona (lime) for plaster or to create stone ledges, jharokhas, etc. The younger generation of masons doesn’t know these techniques so we got the retired masons on board and teamed the young and the old so that these amazing techniques can be passed on to the next generation.
Removing bats, owls, etc from certain rooms was also very challenging. We tried so many methods and kept failing for months and then finally succeeded. Even removing the trees growing out of few walls was very difficult. Their roots had gone really deep and we had to make sure that we remove it completely so that it doesn’t re-grow…and at the same time make sure that we don’t damage the walls. Every day is a challenge when you work on a project like this. Sometimes, just opening a little 2X2 ft window in a room takes as long as 2-3 days because the walls are so thick and because you have to do it carefully so as to not accidentally create cracks.”
And that is not all. Being a woman in a small orthodox village was the biggest challenge of all, she says, “When I tried to put together a team of labourers to begin the cleaning process, the men were so reluctant to work at a place where a woman was at the helm of affairs that it was really difficult to get things moving. That’s when I roped in all the women, some of whom came with the purpose of making personal income while others just came out of curiosity to check out what another woman was trying to do! Whatever was the reason, I managed to put together an all-women team of labourers and we began the process of cleaning! I remember how some of them came and conversed with me in Hindi and when I replied in Rajasthani (Mewari) they were all shocked! They told me how they never expected me to be so fluent in the local language since I had been away for so long,” Priyamvada says.
Through this restoration project, Priyamvada not only paid attention to priceless history but also helped women and others who had trouble earning, find a livelihood. Talking about the women who are working with her on the project she says,“Most of the women that we have employed were housewives before this, so this is the first time that they are earning their own money and feeling empowered. The fact that the fort is right in the middle of the village works well for them as they come and go easily and feel more secure with the fact that their employer is also a woman!”
“We also hired a few old and disabled people and gave them work according to their capacity. Like there is a blind man on our team who helps us filtering the bajri (sand) through the mesh for finer construction, or helps us dig pits for plantations, septic tank, etc. There are few old men (70-75 years old) who help us clean stone pillars, jharokhas etc with the use of sandpaper and other tools. It’s a job they can do at their own pace and while sitting comfortably. We particularly try to engage such people so that they can earn independently and feel empowered and self-confident again,” adds Priyamvada.
This restoration project that began in 2012 is family funded. It will take another two years to complete the work. Talking about her work so far, she says, “We have almost completed the outer work i.e boundary and landscaping. Now that the place is enclosed, we plan on starting a community run kitchen garden project soon. All the seepage issues have been dealt with and some original artworks have been restored. Few rooms are almost nearing completion. A lot has been done… but there is still a lot more that needs to be done!”
When we talk about ancient forts, stories of hauntings and buried treasures are abundant. While the former did not happen in this case, the latter did. Answering the question about what she found in the rooms of the old fort she says, “Books were the biggest treasure! We found trunks full of books across various subjects like history, Ayurveda, home remedies, travel, moral science, fiction, religious and some newsletters, etc. Some of them were damaged but we still managed to segregate more than 2000 books in a good condition. The excitement that the villagers had in their eyes seeing the books took me by surprise as we usually don’t associate rural populace with reading habits. So their interest is what inspired me to put together a community library. My city friends are also contributing to this project by donating more books and we will soon set up this library for our village in the fort premises. We also found other interesting stuff like a broken cannon, wheels of a broken buggy, few cannonballs, swords, badges of Meja Police from the days of the Raj, and some old documents of court cases in the Meja Kachehri (court) as my ancestors had judicial powers. I also found an exquisite velvet & brocade sherwani that my great-grandfather is seen wearing in an old painting!”
She shuttles from Meja to Ajmer, back and forth as her family resides in Ajmer. There is one anecdote that she shares during her stay at the fort that has brought her personal satisfaction, “When my friend Esha came to visit me driving all by herself from Jaipur, the villagers were shocked to see a woman drive…and that too all alone all the way from the city. But after that, the inclusion of the village women in the fort restoration and their interaction with my visiting female friends who flocked in from time to time gave the villagers a firsthand glimpse of women empowerment! And suddenly, there was no hula boo over a chori driving into the village all by herself – rather acknowledgement and admiration. The women of Meja are now inspired to step out of being someone’s wives or daughters to wanting to earn an identity for themselves by their own mettle. This transition is personally one of the most gratifying things for me over the years.”
The fort now has become a community hub. Priyamvada and the villagers have tried to revive traditional festivals using the fort as the venue. They celebrate several local festivals like Gangaur, Jal Jhoolni Ekadashi and others. They are also promoting local dance forms like Gair by organising inter-village competitions at the fort. Besides this, they also organise blood donation camps and yoga camps for the benefit of the villagers.
With eyes set firmly on the fort, Priyamvada shares her plans for the future, “I am using my experience in the media to transform Meja into a cultural hub where people from my former work life blend with people from my village to together create mutual opportunities and happiness. For instance, a short film titled ‘Blouse’ was recently shot there (directed by one of my friends Vijayeta Kumar). Some villagers acted in it and others worked as local crew, and this not only gave them an earning opportunity, it also put them on an international platform as this film went on to win the ‘Best Short Film’ at NYIFF (New York Indian Film Festival), got screened at other international festivals, and even saw a theatre release at PVR Cinemas.
As Meja fort rises from its slumber, it raises along with it one of the most underutilized potential of our country – the rural community. We want to evolve into a self-sustaining economic model where the villagers from different walks of life will come together to offer exquisite warmth and hospitality to visitors, and while there’s still some time for that, we want to continue giving a facelift to our little village with our combined efforts.”
At Advantage Woman Awards’ presented by ICICI, which were held in February 2018 in Mumbai, 25 inspirational women from across India in different fields like education, science, sports, medicine were recognised. Priyamvada was awarded for heritage conservation and social upliftment. Vidya Balan presented the award to her and Chanda Kochhar (CEO ICICI) presided over this event.
Priyamvada is one of the very few who decide to quit the rat race and pursue something that they are truly passionate about – something so drastically unique. As she bids adieu she says, “I realised that we must learn to appreciate what we have before time makes us appreciate what we had!”