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City Breaks: Searching for Mastani in Pune

Pune beyond Koregaon

The hidden pleasures of Pune- Peshwa architecture and the legend of Mastani


Talish Ray is a lawyer who imagined  that one day she will run her own firm and earn enough money to travel for vacations whenever she wanted and where ever she wanted . She got her wish. She runs TRS law offices and has a new address called midair somewhere . Only, she find herself trapped in between client and court tantrums with no time to see or feel the place . She is presently working up her courage to dump her firm, sell every belonging and run a shack in Goa where the feni will be free and the conversations by invitation only. This of course  will  happen if her new career avatar as a  bespoke history guide takes off enough to give her the wings. Till then she makes the most of every minute in a new place. In this sporadic column she will share her suggestions for the very best short cultural immersions to pack into a business trip anywhere in the country. Today, she explores the legend of Mastani in Pune before Bollywood spoils it for you.

Not much is written about her except for a minor Wikipedia entry. The only mention Google or Bing is likely to throw up is about a movie forever in the making. Mastani, some call her Baji Rao’s Mastani or as my grandmother preferred- Mastani’s Baji Rao.

Landing at Pune airport is like landing back in time. The airport was operated by the RAF once. To be fair, it functions fairly smoothly. My client, a Pillsbury ( white, pasty, inclined to puffiness) persona,  prides himself at the fact that he hasn’t visited Lakshmi Road in 6 years of staying in Pune. “The traffic is neurotic… very vernacular… not upmarket at all “. The taxi driver is far more accommodating “ I will switch this big car for a small car, you have enough time between lunch and your flight ”. He is one of those guys that go by the name of Sawant in this part of the country. It seems churlish to stop Sawant while he goes on about the Dagrusheth Halwai, Ganpati Temple and its superior wish granting ‘siddhi’.

Between the airport and the meeting, S and I strike a deal. I must pay my respects to the sweetmeat seller who built the venerable Ganpati temple and S will drive me all over the area.

Post lunch-much to Pillsbury’s visible disapproval-we set off.  The lanes get narrower and the crowd gets overwhelming as we reach the temple.  S is bested by my argument that in our part of the country looking at the spire is tribute enough to God. Mumbling in disappointment, he nevertheless honours his commitment and  deposits me at the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum. This seems to be the only place where Pune remembers her.

I had first heard about Mastani from my grand mother . They say her beauty, wit, smarts and martial skills were unparalleled. “So beautiful that Baji Rao thought she was from another world… Such administrative  talent that it made her influential… she enslaved the best general their kinds ever produced…. So jealous were  those uncouth Marathas that they did not even write about her, but she came from our parts and we remember her” . Her stories seemed a part of the oral historical tradition around us in Uttar Pradesh.

Peshwa Baji Rao the first is one of those figures that does justice to his Amar Chitra Katha version. He lived for 40 years, fought 41 battles, lost none, ensured the Maratha supremacy over the Mughals and shifted the capital of the Maratha kingdom from Satara to Pune. Sometime in the late 1720s, he negotiated with Chattrasa-a small Bundela king. It was then that Mastani was bartered as part of a peace treaty. Mastani’s mother is recorded to be from the land of the Nizams . How a bartered girl came to play such an important part in Baji Rao’s life is shrouded in mystery. What is recorded is that he ran important state decisions by her,  abandoned his God-fearing Brahmin wife,  refused to let  her faith in Islam stand in the way of residing with her, built another entrance to the Shaniwar Wada to avoid any confrontation between her and his extended family . What is also recorded is the sheer abiding contempt and hatred that the Maratha court and the local Brahmin community reserved unabashedly for her. In return Mastani held the Marathas in a certain contempt for what in her opinion was their lack of cultural chutzpah. She is supposed to have produced a son who followed her faith (Trivia : The followers of Islam believe that they will be called out by their mothers’ names on the day of reckoning) . What is recorded further is  that she died of a broken heart ( sati/ poisoning??) post Baji Rao’s death and her part of the Shaniwar Wada was dug up,  every belonging of hers burnt or sold to junk shops .  It is from one such  junk shops that Dr. Dinkar Kelkar is supposed to have bought parts of the intricate wood carved pillars and walls . These have been assembled in the museum.

MastaniMahalThe Raja Dinkar Kelkar Muesum is itself built like a Rajasthani Palace. As museums go, this one is eccentric in its collection. It is eerily empty on a weekday afternoon.  There is lots to view. There are  sections devoted to  ivory, jewels, local tribal artifacts, musical instruments and even beetle nut cutters . The Mastani Mahal is at one end of the small museum. Brought from a scrap dealer  and re-assembled as it was in it’s original form, it is a masterpiece. Maratha architecture is dominated by wood carvings and the reassembled Mahal does justice to their fine taste. Small and intricate, even cozy. In the middle of the Mastani Mahal is a  portrait of the Lady herself. She looks young with a distant expression. The mythic proportions of her beauty are slightly debatable though no more than that of  Mona Lisa.  Shrouded  in silence, this section seems oddly unsettling. Much like her, the museum is also a footnote in history. Named after a son that died too young is what I am told.

The Museum official does not recommend Shaniwar Wada where the Peshwas resided. He insists the Peshwa Maratha way of life can be better discerned from  Vishrambaug Wada around the corner. A small walk through the teeming sea of humanity, in the midst of cacophonous traffic, stands a perfectly ornate though small three-storied building that was built in the 18th century for the last few Peshwas. A closer inspection reveals a  tad small though perfect wood structure that has priceless carvings at every available surface. The façade is stunning but in order to really view it, one must stand in the middle of the road at the risk to life and limb. The entrance is a painstakingly ornate wooden structure. The ceiling of the entrance is supported by exquisitely carved winged lion corbels. The intricate ornamental teak pillars shaped like cypress tree trunks with banana flower embellishments are typical of the Peshwa-era craftsmanship. These support a teak gallery on the ground floor on either side of the entrance.

Built as a residential quarter, the first floor of this Wada had a large dancing hall. This again has an ornately carved ceiling, hand crafted teakwood pillars and period chandeliers. Parts of the first floor still houses a large number of artefacts, paintings, chandeliers, vases and other knick-knacks belonging to the Peshwas. The rest of it houses a…well… a  post office ( No one can really blame us for having a sense of history now, can they ?)

One of the  features of the Vishrambaug Wada is the carved woodwork of the balcony, which overlooks the building. This is a fine example of preserved Peshwa Vishrambaugart. Though beautiful, the balcony is out-of-limits for visitors. Apparently  its weathered wooden beams are no longer considered safe. Between the ugly paddocks used to lock out the balcony and the horrific electrical lights that are used at the entrance it seems rather clear that Pune is not enamored with this building.

In one corner of the building is a shop by the Savitri Marketing Institution for Ladies Empowerment (SMILE) selling handicrafts . The lady at the counter here is friendly. She has heard of Mastani courtesy a local Marathi serial Shrimant. Apparently the soap has led to a resurgence in the popularity of the Paithani Nauvari Saree and if I wanted to see a genuine sample of that woven master piece “Peshwai” down the road should do the trick.

I have been to Peshwai before but another excuse to bankrupt the self is always welcome. Peshwai is one of those saree shops where  they emboss their names on each of their expensive creations. It is not very big but spread over a few floors. The most expensive art is naturally housed on the top most floor- the kind of space which threatens to choke even the most ardent saree lover. The all-male sales staff will understand and assess your buying prowess in 5 seconds flat and then will proceed to drown you in all kinds of material. Should you exhibit reluctance they will drape themselves and you, of course separately; in order that you make an informed choice. It is also the kind of saree shop where in 20 minutes flat you can buy more than 30 sarees and they will not offer you  a cup of tea or a discount or freebie. Of course how you live through the collective disapproval of your bank manager, spouse  and office accountant  at such display of greedy consumerism is a life skill one can only acquire through experience.

PaithaniThe Paithani  is a gold and silk masterpiece and gets its name from Paithan- a place in Maharashtra. It is identifiable by its traditional peacock motifs and  gaudy colours. Nauvari is a name given to the draping of  a nine yard saree. At Peshwai they had heard all about Mastani.  “You must try and watch Shrimant, we Puneris know all about Mastani from there only “ repeated the POS attendant. “ Very beautiful Marathi woman just like our paithani nauvari saree”.

That bartered girl-of uncertain parentage-from Bundelkhand may just get the last laugh!

Practical Information

Pune is well connected and has a fantastic range of hotels.

Lakshmi Road is in the old part of the city and is closed on Mondays.

Featured Photo Credit: TheDiplodocus via Compfight cc

All other images courtesy Talish Ray

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