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A Brand New Man
Life begins at 50 for the maharaja of Mysore who has gone in for an image makeover

About the time Hrithik Roshan was gyrating to the number Main aisa kyun hoon (Why am I like this)? in Lakshya, it appears the maharaja of Mysore, Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, of what is arguably India's richest royal family, was facing a similar crisis. He had lost the Lok Sabha elections as a Congress candidate and was trying to find his metier in life afresh. To put it a little more bluntly, like in the film, he was trying to transform his 'embarrassing idleness to redeeming self-motivation'.

Wodeyar is launching a string of new projects, including an airline.
Some, however, argue the process began earlier than 2004, to be precise in 2003, when he turned 50—with a big bash.

Whatever the dates, in July 2005, we have a maharaja who has had a complete makeover. The most apparent thing is his looks, "he has lost a lot of weight and has become affable," wrote a party reviewer. A letter in the Deccan Herald in December 2004 read: "It was interesting to see a slimmer Wodeyar at the cake exhibition. His new avatar matches his new profession as a fashion designer." Wodeyar's weight reduction was an intense process that took place in London. He also sports a goatee now, which gives his moon-like face an elongated look. Besides, it is expected to play a functional role of luck, like in Amitabh Bachchan's case, in the "highly superstitious" life of the maharaja. Only, he hasn't added an extra syllable to his name, a la Jayalalitha, who, incidentally, also hails from Mysore.

A logical progression of this makeover has been that his Page 3 presence has risen considerably: "Lee, the international fashion denim brand, is hosting a series of parties from October to December at Zero G. One could spot the most happening faces here, including actress Vanitha Vasu and Srikanta Datta Narasimharaja Wodeyar," a typical announcement reads.

To render a greater degree of authenticity to his new look, the maharaja has also turned fashion designer. And to promote the 'Premiere Collection of the Royal House of Mysore', he has often walked the ramp with pretty women. In this enterprise, fashion impresario Prasad Bidappa is his pal. When the maharaja displayed a 'youthful summer collection' some months ago, it was reported that a W-shaped ramp, to denote Wodeyar, was created. The 'Wodeyar' title comes from the name of a Shaivite priest who helped found the Mysore dynasty in the 14th century.

Wodeyar has also announced a string of new projects, which showcases an entrepreneurial spirit never heard of before. He wants to launch an airline—'a palace on air', and an online university; his biography project is in place; he is setting up a website, in which he "will appear personally to lead you on a wonderful exploration of a bygone era"; he has plans to relaunch his heritage properties; he has already done so for his Fernhill Palace in Ooty.

Rajendra Vilas atop Chamundi Hills is said to be next in line. At a lunch for journalists last week, he laid out his plans to renovate the Bangalore Palace—a magnificent structure inspired by the British royals' Windsor Castle—now in poor shape after serving hundreds of indiscreet film crews for a decade. But an old retainer defends him: "What could he do? He needed money to fight legal battles and pay us, so the palace was rented out to film crews. I have seen the real glory of the palace during the previous maharaja's reign." All efforts by Outlook to meet him to discuss his image transformation and new projects, however, were unsuccessful. He did not respond to any number of requests for an appointment.

Even when he was a three-time MP from Mysore, he did not make news as much as he has made in the last year. Not even when he switched allegiances between the Congress and the BJP, while claiming to be inspired by Karl Marx! He was out of bounds for his constituents. He was perceived to be smug, dull, meek and reclusive.

Says a senior editor, who has watched the Mysore palace for three decades: "He didn't serve a single voter. He saw Vijay Mallya at the Mysore Derby fashion show a couple of years ago and probably dreamed of becoming like him. I should say he is now behaving erratically. Whatever new projects he may announce he doesn't have the midas touch. He doesn't involve a single professional. You have to see his employees to believe me. If he had shown only half the passion he is showing now, he would have been a better politician."

P.M. Vijendra Rao, who is working on the biography and website projects, admits the maharaja has changed a great deal since he first met him in 1991, but says he remains a simple and gentle person: "Wodeyar has changed so much that I wonder if I had got him wrong when I first met him. In '91, he wasn't media-savvy, he was also perceived as abrasive and rude, but three years back when I went to Ooty with some journalists, I found him to be informal and witty. He had started opening up. Even physically, he is a lot trimmer now. His fingers can touch his toes. As a politician, he never made false assurances and his lack of political cunning made him a misfit in the treacherous world of politics. In my conversations with him, I have realised he is a true democrat. Aristocracy has not corrupted him. I have seen him clear coffee cups somebody had used."

Bidappa agrees: "He is erudite and intelligent; you can talk to him about anything under the sun. He has single-handedly revived the silk-weaving industry in Karnataka. His silk products have made a sensational impact; they are selling well in all the metros. His recreation of 30 designs of women in Raja Ravi Varma's paintings was sensational. All of Ravi Varma's heroines wore Mysore silk. He probably did not have time for all this earlier as he was in public life. But now he has revived 100 silk units and has brought about a transformation at the grassroots level." When asked about the maharaja's ramp walk, he said: "He was not willing but I forced him to do it, as we do with any other designer at the end of the show."

Wodeyar himself has been reportedly admitting to his new self: "I enjoy going to a discotheque for a waltz or a tango but driving on city roads is crazy.... In the past years, I have been through hell and have come back. I am a fighter. To people, the throne looks strewn with roses. Only I know what it is to mount it..."

The maharaja's fan club seems to be growing. Asked a tourist at the Mysore palace: "Why should we grudge him his share of fun?" Well, your highness, there's nothing wrong if life begins at 50, and you shouldn't really worry about the retelling of the Emperor's new...

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