Meet The Princess Empowering Local Artisans In Bhavnagar, Gujarat

Bhavnagar royal family's Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil is committed to preserving the region's cultural wealth through her venture Bhavnagar Heritage
Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil with the local artisans
Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil with the local artisansBrijeshwari Kumari Gohil/Instagram

From Kutch to Patan, the state of Gujarat is encrusted with many heritage-rich towns. Among them, Bhavnagar shines brightly, and much of that credit goes to the young and enterprising Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil.

Belonging to the royal family of Bhavnagar, an appreciation for the region's heritage was inculcated in her since the very beginning, which catapulted her to pursue it professionally.

While she travelled the world over, collecting many academic accolades and even discovered the subcontinent extensively while working as a researcher for the Durham UNESCO Chair in Lumbini, Nepal and at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya's art conservation department, Gohil's heart belonged to Bhavnagar, where she eventually returned with an aim to empower artisans and promote local heritage.

In an exclusive interview with Outlook Traveller, Gohil tells us about her journey of setting up Bhavnagar Heritage, what goes behind conserving age-old cultural legacies, the challenges in the way, and what the future holds for her.

Princess Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil at Nilambagh Plalace
Princess Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil at Nilambagh Plalace
Q

How has your upbringing in the royal family of Bhavnagar shaped your interest in heritage conservation? 

A

My upbringing has been a learning curve. The constant exposure led to more questions about cultural identity, while the family stories and oral histories passed on to me developed my interest in conservation and preservation.

Q

What inspired you to start Bhavnagar heritage? 

A

When I moved to Bhavnagar after my higher studies, I wanted to explore possible ways in which I could create a meaningful impact in the city. My interest, education and family background led me to explore the local heritage. I realised there was a gap between the appreciation and the wealth of knowledge the older generations possessed for the city's heritage and mine. I felt it was imperative to bring the community together to put Bhavnagar on the map and celebrate its cultural wealth.

Initially, Bhavnagar Heritage started as a community initiative with the aim of preservation, protection and promotion. We organised heritage walks and talks, seminars, and training programmes and highlighted the heritage sites in the district. Eventually, this encouraged me to bring Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) to Bhavnagar, hoping it would provide better guidance and reach. As I learned more, Bhavnagar Heritage's focus shifted towards providing a platform for local artisans, documenting and supporting their art.

Q

How does Bhavnagar Heritage contribute to sustainable livelihoods for artisans and local communities? 

A

Bhavnagar Heritage aims to promote local art and craft by primarily creating a sense of pride and appreciation amongst the people of Bhavnagar and the artisans themselves. Our initiative focuses on long-term impact, so while we strive to grow our team and work with more artisans, we always aim to continue building our relationships with our existing artisans to create a fixed income chain for them, which they can truly depend on. I am presently working with INTACH to restore and redesign a dilapidated craft museum in Bhavnagar, and the restoration work for all the unique artefacts is being done by the local artisans.

Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Bhavnagar Chapter inauguration and INTACH Gujarat meet
Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil at the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) Bhavnagar Chapter inauguration and INTACH Gujarat meetBrijeshwari Kumari Gohil/Instagram
Q

How does conserving textile heritage connect with the broader cultural preservation mission at Bhavnagar Heritage? 

A

Textiles are an important part of our heritage, with each nook and corner of the subcontinent having its own homegrown fabric. More interestingly, they even represent an overlap between nature and culture, with each textile being suitable for the terrain and climate.

In the Saurashtra belt of Gujarat itself, we have a diverse community of artisans such as the Kanbis, Mers, Satwaras, Kolis, Bharwads, Rabaris, Charnas, Kathis, Garasiyas, Molesalam, Rajputs and Mahajan. Each community has a distinct embroidery style, and the textiles they wear and display in their homes are an integral part of their community identity and social standing. This is why I feel it is important to preserve textile heritage. I believe that knowing textile heritage and having the expertise and knowledge of traditional practices (weaves and embroideries) is important to any creative professional in order to successfully call something fashion.

Q

As an advocate for cultural preservation, what challenges have you encountered in your journey, and how have you overcome them?

A

The challenges in cultural preservation differ in every aspect. When we speak about the restoration of buildings, heritage sites, and monuments, the challenges are naturally different from those with the preservation of a local craft. With regards to heritage sites, I have encountered several issues ranging from the lack of knowledge and respect for surroundings by locals, which results in vandalising, scribbling on historic walls or littering these premises, to negligence when it comes to the maintenance of the historical sites.

One such site is Ganga Deri, a State protected monument in Bhavnagar. The ornate marble structure took 16 years to be built and was created with the same sentiment as the Taj Mahal—a monument of love commissioned by a king in memory of his queen. We have been dealing with the government for two years and trying to get the monument restored and cleaned. After several failed attempts, we are now in the process of signing an MOU for a private-public partnership. This would lead to the monument being maintained privately but under the ownership of the government.

Where crafts are concerned, a big issue I encounter is how, due to large-scale demands, artisans are not given enough time to produce high-quality work.

This wall hanging, to be displayed in INTACH Museum in Bhavnagar, is  intricately drawn out using natural dyes and appliqué work. It depicts the battle between Ram and Ravana.
This wall hanging, to be displayed in INTACH Museum in Bhavnagar, is intricately drawn out using natural dyes and appliqué work. It depicts the battle between Ram and Ravana. Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil/Instagram
Q

Could you share some best practices or innovative approaches you have implemented through Bhavnagar Heritage to ensure the long-term preservation of cultural treasures?

A

While documenting the region's built heritage, I learned and realised that every historic site can naturally not be visited by every tourist who comes to the city. To ensure these architectural marvels are still promoted globally, I commissioned a design illustrator to create prints inspired by these cultural treasures. The Bhavnagar Heritage prints are an ode to the region's natural and cultural heritage. The prints are available in apparel and homeware, which takes the monument to the individual. I hope these prints lead to appreciating the surroundings and promoting the local heritage.

Q

What are your future aspirations and goals for Bhavnagar Heritage? 

A

My aim is to expand our influence and cultivate a group of individuals who value cultural diversity. This, in turn, will encourage more people to gain knowledge about regional arts and purchase them. It is a journey of education and growth, and my aspiration is to bring new ideas and motivation. My objective is to honor the heritage of our community and inspire others to do the same.

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