How likely is it that a young single woman at the peak of her career in reality television – rubbing shoulders with the likes of Amitabh Bachchan on Kaun Banega Crorepati, and numerous celebrities on Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa and so on – would give it all up to move to a village set in the middle of nowhere to restore an old fort at her own cost?
But Priyamvada Singh wasn’t out to set an example. She had been on a small break from work and had taken an impromptu visit to her ancestral village Meja, a village of about 10,000 people 130 km from Ajmer.
There, she visited the 55-room Meja Fort – her great-great-grandfather Rawat Amar Singh had started its construction in 1870 – and decided to clean the place up a bit, “restore its original glory”.
But what happened next was unexpected. This is a remarkable story of an individual’s spirit changing a community’s outlook, of the ripples caused by a pebble in a pond, of the power of one.
Several things happened when Priyamvada announced her decision to move to Meja in 2012.
First was resistance from the family: “Why would you give up your TV career just when you’re doing so well?” asked her father, a retired bureaucrat based in Ajmer. “How can a single girl live alone in a village?” worried her homemaker mom. “Is she mad?” questioned the villagers.
But Priyamvada doggedly went ahead. “We had no fans initially,” the 35-year-old alumna of Mayo Girls School and Sophia College in Ajmer recalls in her grounded way.
At first, she tried to hire a few men from the village to sweep the place – the rooms were full of owls, bats, spiders, and other unsavoury inhabitants.
Some corners of the fort were also being misused as dumping grounds by the neighbours. But the villagers didn’t want to take instructions from a woman, so she told them to send their wives instead.
“Since I was a woman, their husbands didn’t mind their wives working for me,” Priyamvada recounts. She hired a full-time domestic helper and a guard to live with her on the premises, and set to work.
The village women worked outside their homes for the first time in their lives, earning a wage and gaining in confidence.
Priyamvada also deliberately hired older, retired masons to work on the restoration of boundary walls and inner arches using traditional construction styles to give them a source of livelihood.
Then, Priyamvada came across a room full of old books and decided to set up a library. Her friends from Mumbai pitched in and donated more than 2000 books.
Since the area lacks public libraries, she hoped that this initiative would open new avenues for the locals.
She also began organizing activities for the benefit for the villagers such as blood-donation camps, yoga camps, and so on, and using the fort as a venue to celebrate local festivals like Gangaur and Jal-jhoolni Ekadashi.
Competitions were organised to involve the younger generation – and she wasn’t averse to using her personal ‘network’ to help them too. Spotting two little Meja boys’ singing talent, for instance, she got them to participate on a reality TV show.
One of them performed so well that a corporate house has now sponsored his stay and education in Mumbai.
In 2014, Priyamvada married Orissa-based businessman Vijayendra Chandra Deb, who was a family friend for several years and was aware of her “crazy” endeavour in Meja. He doesn’t mind her obsession, and they have come up with a comfortable travel routine.
The 48,000-sq ft fort has also earned its bit of fame as a movie backdrop: the short film Blouse was recently shot there, directed by one of Priyamvada’s friends. Not only did it give the villagers a chance to act or work as local crew and earn some money, it also put them on an international platform.
The film went on to win the Best Short Film at New York Indian Film Festival, got screened at other international festivals, and even saw a theatrical release at PVR Cinemas.
Self-deprecating and modest, Priyamvada’s priorities have changed vastly in the past few years. Last month, she was given the ‘Advantage Woman Award’ by ICICI Bank for heritage preservation and social upliftment. Startlingly tall, she dwarfed actor Vidya Balan while the latter handed her the award.
“When I showed the villagers the photo, they asked me ‘Who is she?’ That’s how clueless the rural populace is about cinema or what goes on in the cities,” Priyamvada says with a sad smile.
She hopes to turn the fort into a kind of homestay where tourists can experience the rural lifestyle and give local tourism a boost, but it’s still a distant dream due to financial constraints.
In the meantime, she will continue to add her unique city perspective to the village folk’s lives, foster community bonding, and maybe see her beloved old fort stand tall in its former glory again.
First published in the March 2018 issue of eShe magazine. Read it for free here.