The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 20, 2000

A mute testimony to a colourful age
By Shona Adhikari

ROMANCE rules the world they say, and in all the dynasties that have ruled all over the world, there is always a secret and hidden story of passion that cannot fail to enthrall us. The dynasty of the Peshwas, who succeeded the Marathas, it was no different — this was a romance as exciting as a Hindi film script!

Mastani: A woman of legendary beautyHe was Peshwa Bajirao the first, a descendant of prime ministers who served Pune’s rulers, including Shivaji, and later succeeded him as rulers of the region. She was his beloved concubine Mastani — singer, danseuse and a woman of legendary beauty and talent. Her translucent skin was likened to the finest pearl, and her mouth to the red of a pomegranate seed.

Their forbidden liaison, doomed from the start, moved to its sad and natural end. But while it lasted, it was the stuff of dreams. The city of Pune formed the background to this great romance.

Versatile, ever-changing Pune, Maharashtra’s second-largest city, has so many contradictory facets:Brahminical rthodoxy to some revolutionary ideas of freedom; of old styled wadas (traditional mansions of older times), standing cheek by jowl with modern glass structures. The Peshwas, of course, did not build Pune, the city is far older than the almost 300-year old dynasty. The city has a more or less unbroken history having grown from Shivaji’s ideological capital to that of the Peshwas.

  Here you can see grand old buildings built for pleasure like ‘Vishramwada’ (literally translating into a mansion for relaxation), to the temples that this family of hereditary prime ministers built all over the city. This combination of prudery with an apparently explicit surrender to pleasure is yet another of the city’s contradictions, of which its citizens appear to be, perversely, very proud.

Among the temples built by the Peshwas, is the moated Saras Baug Ganesh Temple, located in the green expanse of Peshwa Park. The Parvati Temple is on located on the outskirts of the city, on a steep hilltop. It draws a great many pilgrims, despite the fact that there is no other way to reach the top, except by foot. It is said that the last Peshwa ruler stood at the top and sadly watched his kingdom vanish, as his troops battled, and were defeated by the British, at the famous battle of Kirkee.

Mastani Mahal at the Raja Dinkar Kelkar MuseumThe Peshwas themselves did not originate from Pune. The patriarch, Balaji Vishwanath Bhat, crossed the ghats from the Konkan to become the first Peshwa (or Prime Minister) in 1707, for the Satara-based King Shahu; and found prosperity and ever-lasting fame

in the fertile land of Pune. Establishing their rule in the region, the Peshwas illustrated the intelligence and fearlessness that they had used in helping and guiding their erstwhile rulers, who included the fearless Shivaji. Under the Peshwas, the region grew in importance and wealth, till they were defeated in battle by the British.

Peshwa Balaji Vishwanath was succeeded by his son, Bajirao I, a brilliant cavalry general, and a romantic at heart. Today one building stands mute testimony to his rule — the Shanwarwada, a place built by Bajirao I in 1736. It is located in a section of the city, where winding roads form a virtual maze. While the palace interiors were burnt down in a massive fire in 1827, and are totally gone, the fortified walls, large brass-studded gates with menacing spikes to ward off elephants, 18th Century lotus pools and the elaborate foundations of the palace still survive. There is a pleasant garden inside the walled enclosure, and signs announce where rooms earlier stood. A fine equestrian statue of its builder, stands proudly in front of the building.

Peshwa Bajirao 1The saga of the Peshwas is neither drab or dull, but replete with all the ingredients necessary for a best-selling novel romance, intrigue, internal bickering, even open revolt. There was Bajirao I’s ill-fated love affair with the Muslim dancer, the beautiful and accomplished Mastani. Religion played a major part in the lives of the Peshwas, and despite the love that Baijirao and Mastani shared, they both knew there was no future for them, and that sooner or later it would have to end.

At the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum, a large collection of items of every-day use have been lovingly collected and tastefully displayed. Here even the most ordinary piece has taken on a special beauty. In this unique museum, a whole wing is given to a section of the mansion built by the besotted Bajirao for Mastani. Reconstructed as a tribute to the grandeur of a bygone era, the Mastani Mahal, remains a reminder one of the great romances of our land.

Bajirao, created this amazing palace for his beloved, in

which terracotta painted walls, embellished with themes from the Krishna Leela, were drawn with the finest strokes, in white. The wooden ceiling was intricately carved and supported on ornate carved pillars.

Statue of Bajirao 1 in front of ShanwarwadaImagine the scene as it may have been — wonderful crystal chandeliers lit up the palace, and as the Peshwa dressed in his fine silks, relaxed against gold embroidered velvet cushions, his beloved Mastani played on the tanpura, lifting her melodious voice in song. These two did not need anything more, to make their happiness complete. But as in traditional film scripts, their luck had to run out, and duty and honour, the political and court intrigue haunted the lovers at every step, bringing and end to this idyllic relationship.

We have Raja Dinkar Kelkar to thank for having the vision to save this invaluable part of history, before it faded away into oblivion like so much else in the city. In fact, considering how far back that the city’s history dates back to, it is strange that there is so little left to see.

By including a part of the Mastani Mahl in his splendid museum, Kelkar ensured that this great romance would continue to enthrall future generations. Visitors marvel at the still fresh painted fres-

coes on the walls, the ornate

pillars and ceilings. Bajirao’s velvet gaddi, and Mastani’s tanpura — now lying mute and silent — bear testimony to a tragically romantic and colourful chapter in Pune’s history.