Scindia show in Tansen territory

A slice of Konarak in Gwalior

YOU DON’T have to die for an institute in India to carry your name. Ask Hindi film superstar Amitabh Bachchan or former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Baritone Bachchan has a sports complex (Allahabad) and an inter college (Saifai village) named after him in Uttar Pradesh state. (A degree college-to-be in his daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai’s name ran into rough weather at Daulatpur village, also in UP.)

The institutes with the Bachchan tag ooze with ungainliness typical of the Samajwadi (socialist) brand of politics in UP. Unlike the one in adjoining Madhya Pradesh named after brake-baritone Vajpayee.

The Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management (IIITM) in Gwalior has class written all over. It’s not because my brother-in-law teaches there exalted mathematics with a cyber-zoological twist.

Every educated person in and around Gwalior knows where or what the 60-hectare ‘Triple-I TM’ is. But they don’t tell you that the institute has three letters — ABV — prefixed to its name.

Websites on Gwalior and its institutes — the town has quite a few including the similar-sounding IITM and IITTM — don’t carry the troika of alphabets too. And you have to have aquiline vision to read the ‘ABV’ in almost invisible font on official stationery, literature and signboards in IIITM.

'Royal' family

Maybe because ABV — it expands to Atal Bihari Vajpayee — is no longer relevant in India’s saffron politics. Or maybe Vajpayee isn’t the right name in a place where the Scindias reign.

Journalists hate to admit how ignorant they are. But I would fool myself if I claim I knew why Madhavrao Scindia was what he was before a copter crash killed him in September 2001. That too because he took along with him my friend and former Hindustan Times colleague Anju Sharma.

Almost everything in Gwalior carries the Scindia stamp, I found out during my maiden visit to this central Indian city in January 2010. And it doesn’t matter if Jyotiraditya doesn’t wear the same aura as his father Madhavrao.

My virtual visits to Gwalior earlier told me the place is famous for three things — an imposing fort built by king Maan Singh Tomar that towers over the town, the aura of Tansen (one of medieval Mughal emperor Akbar’s nine gems and considered ultimate in Hindustani classical singing) and the first epigraphic evidence of zero.

I couldn’t zero in on the epigraphic zilch during the four foggy days I spent in Gwalior. But I paid almost zero for a drive up the fort that houses the elite Scindia School, Gurdwara Data Bandi and Saas-Bahu Temple.

20-paisa tickets

Almost zero! How else do you explain a fee of 20 paisa ($ 0.004) per car in this age of inflation? Mobile and internet service providers, you might argue, offer usage charges that make 20 paisa seem exorbitant. Until, of course, you get the bill.

A visit to Tansen’s tomb just did not happen – sacrilege for someone who learned to play the tabla and remember not to forget (for the sake of theoretical exams, at least) Gwalior as one of the 10 major gharanas or schools of Hindustani classical music.

But I did spend time loitering in the cacophonic bazaars, munching the odd gajjak, a bar of gur-glued sesame that, I was told, originated in Morena 30 km north. It was at the City Center – standing below a discotheque (tauba, Tansen mian!) named Barcode and holding a sesame bar – that my brother-in-law suggested we see the Jai Vilas Palace ek bar.

Partly a luxury hotel and partly a museum, the opulent palace of the Scindias tells you why much of Gwalior barely ekes out a living. And why bandits still rule the Chambal ravines on the Morena-Bhind belt yonder.

For those smitten by royalty, the palace is worth a peep. But you are bound to be put off the moment you step into the museum and hit the wildlife section. Even if you are not an animal lover, you can’t help feeling sorry for the stuffed tigers, leopards and birds that stare out of their glass enclosures.

Gwalior, it is said, derived its name from hermit Gwalipa who cured one Suraj Sen of leprosy. Gwalipa renamed Suraj Sen as Suhan Pal, warning him his descendants would lose power if they grew tired of the Pal tag. Suhan Pal’s 84th descendant changed his name to Tej Karan. The inevitable happened; the curse buried Karan’s kingdom as tej (fast) as he adopted a trendy title.

Centuries later, Shinde evolved into the stylish Scindia. Outcome: the tiger’s territory truncated.

Maybe the Scindias – other Indian ruling dynasties too – felt sorry for the striped cat, identified with its Royal (Bengal) name and took it indoors. To be safe as trophies.


About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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