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Cover Story
May 12, 2016

Contemporary Royals: Nandini Singh Jhabua

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Trisha Sarang. Styling by Shweta Navandar. Make-Up by Rebecca Doney, TFM India. Hair by Meghna Butani, Assisted by Reena Creado. Location Courtesy: Bungalow 8, Mumbai

Nandini Singh Jhabua talks about her roots in Madhya Pradesh and her work preserving different art forms

Devoted to preserving different art forms, she works with tribal artisans from Gond, providing them with the necessary support to develop their trade. Nandini Singh Jhabua remains connected to her roots in Madhya Pradesh (MP) through her social and aesthetic endeavours, encouraging traditional artists to experiment with contemporary themes. Her home in New Delhi has several art works that dot its walls. Married to Pitamber Pratap Singh (son of Thakur Dhyanendra Singh), she is a modern-day patron who loves wildlife art. Her repertoire of artists — she also encourages Islamic art — has grown in recent times, and she is taking trunk shows to various cities.

Fond memories “I hail from Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh, an area that is dominated by the tribal population. My earliest memories are of a wonderful childhood, of growing up in a huge joint family, in our familial home in Indore. The house was enormous and had a massive staff to maintain it. I remember one of my uncles saying, ‘My god, the number of servants is actually more than the people living here!’”

Early years “Being the first girl child of my generation in the family, my grandmother spoiled me rotten. When I was born, she gave my mother a gold watch. My food would come in a huge silver thal with different items in silver katoris. My grandfather, the late Ajit Singhji, the Maharaja of Jhabua, taught me the value of being a good human being  and the importance of standing on my own feet.”

Stepping out “When I was around nine, my parents decided to send me to a boarding school because they felt that I should lead a less privileged life instead of a princess’ existence with a battery of helpers and platters of food. I had a fantastic stint at Maharani Gayatri Devi Girl’s School, Jaipur.”

World wide web “After I finished my schooling, my grandparents urged me to go to Bombay (Mumbai). I went there for two months, got a cultural shock, was quite homesick and rushed back to my comfort zone. My grandparents were insistent that I complete my studies in the city, so I did my mass communications from Xavier Institute of Communications — and the whole experience changed my life. Much later, when I went to New York, I realised how like Mumbai it is — both are melting pots of different peoples, cultures and cuisines.”

Made for each other “I was on the verge of getting a job in Mumbai, but my parents had received a marriage proposal for me. I returned home — also because my grandfather was not well at the time — and wondered if I had studied so much to end up being married in a village, no disrespect intended. My parents gave me some time to find myself. I was assessing different opportunities, when I met my husband, Pitamber. Our backgrounds and mindsets were similar. He changed my life for the better, enabling me to study abroad. And then, in America, I, Nandini Singh Jhabua, was living like ‘a commoner’ — it was brilliant.”

Invaluable values “I know that even though we have everything, it is important to have a good head on one’s shoulders. I work with an NGO, Umang, in Gwalior, which aims at the betterment of women and children. “

Tryst with art “My love for wildlife art stems from my growing-up years in MP, the land of tigers. We would spend winter vacations in beautiful resorts in Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Ranthambore and Madhavpur. When I returned to India from America, I thought of starting my own art collection. At an exhibition, I bumped into Sonia Bhutani Mehta, who is now my business partner. She had an interesting repertoire and I picked up some gorgeous wildlife paintings from her. Later, I shared my concerns about the artists from Jhabua with her — and we decided to get together and source art from them. Today, I am just helping the less fortunate to showcase their talent. We have held exhibitions in cities like Indore and Chandigarh and have more lined up. My artists come home. They share meals with me.”

Public appearances “When in the villages with my husband, I wear saris. People look up to us, they approach us for help. My mother-in-law, Maya Singh, is the cabinet minister for Women And Child Development in the Madhya Pradesh government; I have so much to learn from her.”

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