By Neha Kirpal
Urvashi Singh of Khimsar is an independent publisher, hotelier and new-age entrepreneur with royal antecedents. She runs Urvashi’s Retreat, a leading luxury boutique resort in Manali, and has her own sociocultural and lifestyle feature publication called Rajputana Collective that provides a networking platform to the Rajput community in its contemporary facets. We talk to her about her life and work.
Tell us about your childhood in Khimsar, Rajasthan.
Growing up, I spent a considerable amount of time in Khimsar, my ancestral home, under the watchful gaze of doting parents and a staff body that I call my family. My parents served our familial heritage fort as hoteliers and hence, I too ended up being an active participant in the hotel’s daily activities as its youngest host. I remember whizzing past the hotel compound in my bicycle, and playing tennis and cricket with our staff.
During the off-season summer months, I would stay in and enjoy a movie at the hotel’s home theatre. In the winters, I would spend time riding horses from our neighbouring stables.
During peak season months, I’d attend all evening entertainment programmes by the poolside with magicians, puppeteers and fire-spitters. I also have vivid memories of my parents taking me to the nearby mustard fields to play hide and seek with our Labrador retrievers.
By the time I turned eight, my father introduced me to his 1940s’ Ford jeep that I would drive around in the barren countryside. He also taught me how to fire an airgun and I would attempt target practices with the hotel’s tin waste. I had also nursed my very own vegetable patch in the hotel’s orchard section and would host tea parties.
Do you think that people belonging to royal families have been stereotyped in popular culture?
The very idea of royalty stands stereotyped across popular cultures of the world, presumably so due to the powerful fantasies that it harbours. Right from their childhood, people are told fables around a prince and a princess, a king and a queen of a kingdom far, far away. Hence, tropes around royalty are formed in due benevolence but end up serving as an impediment to present-day royalty in popular imagination.
This phenomenon takes away from the fact that people belonging to erstwhile royal families are citizens just as everybody else, and have the same rights, capabilities and vulnerabilities. Exalting someone is not always an act of flattery.
The constant fascination that I received as a child because I was supposed to be a ‘princess’ ended up making me apologetic in ways that I am beginning to rectify now. It made me shy and slightly reclusive, possibly because I felt the need to stiffen up my demeanour to constantly suit someone else’s voyeurism. It was strangely bittersweet, especially because I never identified with vanity.
I am aware that I might serve others as a part of my culture’s living heritage. However, it is deeply problematic for a person of royal descent to be reduced to their royal descent. They must be credited with their individual merits, whatever they might be, as this dignity is a prerogative of every citizen living in a liberal democracy.
The most interesting part of the meaning-making of royalty is that royalty is what one makes of it and hence, its voyeurs have a bigger responsibility than what they are presently aware of.
Please share an insight into the changing face of royalty in Rajasthan – from merely inheriting royal privileges to following their own entrepreneurial and other pursuits.
Inheritance is a complicated word. Back in the day, when one inherited royalty, they inherited more responsibilities than privileges. The idea of inherited royalty became perverted with time to convey a titular existence of over-entitlement. One of the downsides to democratic sensibilities is their outright negation of aristocratic modes of governance as merely exploitative and corrupt. However, it is important to re-establish the primal intents of royalty, which were to do with service that was noble, loyal and accountable.
A considerable part of India’s erstwhile royalty and nobility was not very well-endowed to sustain a lifetime of estrangement of finance and identity and so opted for more conventional means of occupation. Since many families of erstwhile Rajputana claimed inheritance to ancestral forts and palaces, it was ideal for them to host hoteliering projects out of their native soil. Their individual and collective pursuits in the field of hospitality are truly commendable and continue to rise. My own family is an example of this phenomenon, alongside those of Samode, Mandawa, Pokhran, Patan and countless others in India.
The second and third generations of these families received a firmer footing in the hospitality industry and are confident enough to step into alternate professional avenues. The millennial Rajputs have kept with the common generational trend of entrepreneurship and have established an impressive array of start-ups and promising brands that I am very proud to witness.
Tell us about how you are inculcating responsible luxury in your boutique hotel, Urvashi’s Retreat.
Responsible luxury and organic harvesting stems from being willing to contribute back to our source – the ecosystem. We often think that we own the land that we inhabit. This is a false sense of entitlement that I wish to do away with at Urvashi’s Retreat. In reality, it is the land that owns us. We derive our entire existence and sustenance from the earth and deny the mutuality of our existence. Responsible luxury is just a small way in which I propose to give back to the earth what I possibly can.
I have opted for minimal wastage strategies, such as the replacement of disposable plastic with reusable terracotta, jute and rice paper in the housekeeping department. I banned the use of plastic straws within my hotel premises last year and only keep paper straws.
Furthermore, like most hill stations, Manali faces challenges when it comes to sustainable waste management. To minimise our waste output, we have created a vermicompost pit where we dispose all our biodegradable waste, turning it into useful manure for our apple trees. We also utilise our grounds for organic farming.
Tell us about your other interests and hobbies.
I read a quote once which said, “Find three hobbies that you love – one to make you money, one to keep you in shape, and one to be creative.” In order to optimise my role, I need to remain physically and mentally fit.
I follow Sadhguru’s Kriya Sadhana as it centres me. As for sports, I go for long-distance running, hiking, occasional squash and seasonal trap shooting. I am passionate about motorbiking and driving, which are meditative for me. Since I am a foodie, I enjoy whipping up different recipes and trying out various cuisines.
I find myself to be most in tune with my being when I am clicking photos, writing or reading, or interacting with innovative ideas and topics. In all, I consider myself a seeker, a person who is constantly seeking the endless wonders that this world offers, for, “magic comes to those who seek it.”
First published in eShe’s May 2019 issue
Syndicated to CNBCTV18