The Queen's Kolhapuris
Art & Story by Chandana Banerjee
Last year, I was visiting Ramgarh, a fort town in Rajasthan with crumbling forts and palaces. Right around the corner, near the Maharani's (queen) palace was a little shop, just as ancient as the palace itself. Dusty and dark with an odd mix of whimsical and quirky things, the store was any antique hunter's dream and a 'neatophile's nightmare. I spent a whole afternoon rummaging through tattered tomes, handwritten cookbooks with yellowed pages, heavy fabric that may have been resplendent at one time, utensils and what-not. Tucked into one corner was a pair of slippers. Kolhapuri-kind-of-slippers that were clearly hand-sewn. Green and dull gold with burnished brown soles, the slippers had something oddly magnetic about them. As I dusted them and slipped them on, only to find that they fit me snugly, the old, wobbly shopkeeper came out from a corner and said, "These belonged to one of the princesses' a 100 years ago."
I had to have them right away. I slipped them on, paid the shopkeeper and walked out of the shop, sauntering past the Queen's Palace. On a whim, I popped into the queen's quarters. The sun was dipping low on the horizon, bathing the carved monument in buttery yellow light. I saw a flash of red and green, the gold edge of a skirt around a pillar. I rubbed my eyes, only to hear a tinkling of anklets and wisps of laughter. Inching closer to the room, I peeped through the tinted window.
Women in rich ghagras (traditional skirts) and heavy jewellery danced, laughed and sang. Was this the palace harem, I wondered. The room was as good as new, with marble floors, velvet curtains and silk pillows. I looked on, fascinated with pages of history coming alive right before my eyes....
However, in a few minutes, the sun dipped lower, wrapping the palace in shadows. I turned to a tap on my shoulder. "Madam, what are you doing here? You can't be on the premises after sunset," informed the security person. As I got ready to leave, I took one last look inside the room. It was dark and crumbling, with no signs of the life and laughter I'd witnessed a few minutes earlier.
As I walked back to my hotel, I wondered whether it was imagination or the magic slippers that belonged to one of the royal women in that room...