REBEL PRINCESS WITH A CAUSE Akshita M. Bhanj Deo Of Mayurbhanj
She is using her palace-turned-boutique hotel as an artists’ retreat and a platform to reach out to the local community
Armed with a degree in Politics and Human Rights from Bard College, working as a consultant with an Artificial Intelligence (AI) non-profit and using her ancestors’ jewellike palace in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, as a springboard of hospitality and creativity impacting lives of marginalised local communities, 27-year-old Princess Akshita M. Bhanj Deo of Mayurbhanj is a role model for her generation of erstwhile royals.
She is also doubling up as a Director of Belgadia Palace, her family home in Baripada, Mayurbhanj district. The “Wes Anderson-esque” Palace (picture the candy-coloured palette of his film, The Grand Budapest Hotel), which she describes as perfectly symmetrical and sitting on 20 acres, is done up in sorbet pastel colours, with nostalgic touches and quaint memorabilia. But it’s the history of Belgadia Palace – one of three that belonged to the Mayurbhanj royals, the first donated to the Bengal government (it became a vocational institute in Kolkata) and the second in Shillong that became India’s only IIM in the North-East – that speaks of a love story so great that it became one of Akshita’s biggest inspirations.
In the late 19th century, Akshita’s ancestor, the rebellious and pioneering Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanj Deo, fell in love with Sucharu Devi (daughter of leader of Bengal Renaissance Keshab Chandra Sen, a Brahmo), when he was just 18, but could not marry her due to family opposition. He went on to marry the Princess of Porahat (in Bihar), and had two sons and a daughter, but sadly, the Maharani and her daughter died of smallpox. So Maharaja Sriram Chandra travelled the world, during which he met a Parsi gentleman called J.N. Tata and invited him to Mayurbhanj to start India’s first iron ore and steel mine (Jamshedpur used to be a part of Mayurbhanj district). At a party in Calcutta, he met his first love Sucharu Devi, married her and brought her to Mayurbhanj as his Maharani, building Belgadia Palace for her. “It’s a major love story similar to Wallis Simpson and King Edward,” says Akshita. “I pieced together this story as I was restoring their diary – with handwritten letters.”
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