The young Darbar joined his voice to theirs, clapped in rhythm with them-with peasants, labourers, artisans, even the 'untouchables'. And he danced the dandiya with the praja...
Word that the...villagers were singing with him, and also leaping in rhythm with him, and hitting his stick with theirs during the course of a dand.iya dance spread across Dhari taluka, across the tracts where Rai and Sankli lay, in fact, across Kathiawad and across all of Gujarat.
WITH THE SURGE OF INTEREST IN PERSONALITIES from Gujarat, not least because of the election of the controversial Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India, there is no better time for a biography of a great son of Gujarat and one of India's forgotten heroes.
Born in 1887 into a clan of princely Patels, Darbar (or Prince) Gopaldas was not only a beloved and just ruler of the people of his tiny state in Saurashtra, he was an active and courageous participant in the struggle for India's freedom and for social justice. Championing Dalit rights long before that became acceptable, he declared, when his wife Bhaktilaxmi was pregnant with their last child, that if it was a girl he would marry her to a Dalit boy; he stood out also for his concern for Gujarat's Muslim minority and for his defence of women's rights.
Egalitarian at a time when rulers 'measured status by the capacity to humiliate their subjects', he was quick to give up his life of privilege when it became necessary. After he joined the freedom movement in 1920, his life as a prince rapidly became a distant memory; with no fixed abode, he and his family would shuttle between prisons, ashrams and the homes of well-wishers.
Remarkably, although he grew close to Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, he spurned high office for himself, choosing instead to raise and mentor others, including four who became chief ministers, as well as Tribhuvandas Patel, who founded the famous milk cooperative that made Amul possible.
In this biography, bestselling author Rajmohan Gandhi uses letters, rare documents, personal accounts and historical narratives to recreate in vivid and moving detail the life and times of a leader of supreme honesty and unalloyed patriotism who, a hundred years ago, also battled, as a prince, against the hierarchies of Indian society.
RAJMOHAN GANDHI'S last book was Punjab: A History from Aurangzeb to Mountbatten published in 2013 by Aleph Book Company. In 2009 his study, A Tale of Two Revolts: India 1857 and the American Civil War, was published in India, the UK and the US. Until end-December 2012 he taught at the University of Illinois. For spells since then he has been a scholar-in-residence at IIT, Gandhinagar.
More than a quarter-century ago, in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of writing a fairly comprehensive biography of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. This was at a time when it seemed that this builder of a unified India was being overlooked, and well before Ketan Mehta's film on the Sardar was made. In fact, that film relied a good deal on facts provided in the biography.
Four decades earlier-during the years between 1946 and 1950-I had seen the Sardar a few times in New Delhi, where my father Devadas Gandhi, the Mahatma's youngest son, was editing the Hindustan Times and the Sardar was India's home minister and deputy prime minister. When the Sardar died in December 1950, I was 15 years old.
Soon afterwards, I first learnt about Darbar Gopaldas from my father. I had asked him about leaders from Gujarat. 'There is a fine man called Darbar Gopaldas,' my father replied. But around this time (December 1951), Gopaldas died. I did not know then that Darbar was his title and meant 'Prince'.
Though my curiosity had been aroused, other interests absorbed my energies. It was not until the 1980s, while I was working on my biography of Sardar Patel, that I discovered interesting facts about Darbar Gopaldas, and the part he played, despite being a prince, in the satyagrahas of the 1920s, and in efforts for social equality for Dalits.
Yet I could do little research to follow up on this discovery. My father, who could have told me a lot, had died in 1957.
When in recent years I found myself in the United States and ran into Dr Barindra Desai, Darbar Gopaldas's youngest son, I found, through my conversations with him, that his father was even more exceptional than I had realized.
Why had I not known more about him earlier? Why was much of India ignorant of the drama and quality of his life? Non-Indians, too, should have the opportunity to know about such an interesting man. Such thoughts led inevitably to my wanting to study and depict his life.
The exercise was not simple. Dying in 1951, sixty-one years prior to my wish to tell his story, Gopaldas had left behind very little in the form of papers or letters. After being uprooted from his estates in 1922, he had spent most subsequent years in prisons or ashrams, not in any settled home. There was no scope for preserving papers. Though his wife Bhaktilaxmi-Bhaktiba or Bhaktiben as she is known and remembered-lived until 1994, she was too active in public life and in assisting others to have the time to collect documents for recapturing her husband's life. The lives of their sons, too, had been disrupted by the freedom struggle in which the two eldest had also taken direct part. The sons were in no position to put together and preserve papers that could tell their father's story. In the early 1920s, shortly after the seizure of Gopaldas's estates by the Raj, Kalyanji Mehta wrote an account of the prince's life until that point. The account of Mehta (a notable figure himself in the freedom movement) was based on interviews with Gopaldas, research in some of the places where he had lived, and letters he could get hold of. More than thirty years later, in 1955, Rambhai Amin of Vaso, Gopaldas's ancestral village in Gujarat, compiled and edited a memorial volume, for which many who had known Gopaldas contributed reminiscences.
However, these invaluable texts-Kalyanji Mehta's and the one compiled by Rambhai Amin-have long been out of print. Fortunately a handful of copies exist, in original or in photostat. Using material available in these texts, Satishchandra Joshi wrote a valuable biography in Gujarati in 1982, Rashtrasewak Darbar: Shri Gopaldas Desai. In the 1990s, a couple of Gujarati journals came out with special numbers devoted to Gopaldas and Bhaktiba, and a few short Gujarati booklets on their life and work were also published.
Unpublished notes prepared by Manubhai Raval, who was close to Gopaldas and Bhaktiba as also to U.N. Dhebar, a Gopaldas protege who rose to preside over the Indian National Congress, also contain much helpful material, as does the typescript of a book on Bhaktiba written jointly by Raval and Divya Joshi.
It is this compendium of published and unpublished material, plus a few important letters that exist in the family, as well as interviews with sons Yogendra and Barindra, granddaughters Vishakha and Sadhana, and surviving colleague Jayaben Shah, plus research in the Records Office in Rajkot and in the villages of Dhasa and Sankli that have provided much of the information on which this book is based.
The clear memories retained by Barindra, who was born in 1930, have been of inestimable help to me. Over a twenty-month period, he has painstakingly answered question after question. In addition, he has translated into English for my benefit Kalyanji Mehta's text from the early 1920s and several letters to or from Gopaldas. Although I am able, with a dictionary's aid, to read and follow printed Gujarati, my facility in English is greater.
Barindrabhai has been kind to me in practical ways too, yet emphatic that in my text I should be completely frank, where need be critical, and avoid undue praise.
My debt to Barindrabhai is thus immense. I extend profound thanks to him, and am also most grateful to Yogendrabhai, Jayaben, Vishakhaben and Sadhanaben. Jayaben's passing in April 2014 saddened me.
‘We await Surendra Dev's return.' This was the concluding thought in Sorath, Taraan Vahetaan Pani (`Running Streams of Sorath'), Jhaverchand Meghani's realistic novel about the Kathiawad of the 1920s-its princes, helpless rural women, dacoits, policemen, British officers and young idealists.
When the novel first appeared more than seventy-five years ago in 1937, readers were quick to recognize `Darbar' or Prince Gopaldas in the character of Surendra Dev, who was presented by Meghani as a prince with a backbone and a ruler with a heart in a period when kissing imperial dust was the norm for rajas and maharajas, when aristocrats liked to whip and schoolmasters liked to cane.
Meghani is one of Gujarat's most loved writers. Born in 1896, he died in March 1947-a few months before independence-after presenting novels, short stories, poems and a treasury of Kathiawad's folklore. He freely admitted that his Surendra Dev had been modelled on Darbar Gopaldas (1887-1951), the prince who, in 1922, chose to forfeit his Saurashtra possessions and preserve his self-respect rather than the other way round.
Now in her nineties and living in Ahmedabad, Jayaben Shah*, who with her husband Vajubhai Shah lived alongside Darbar Gopaldas and his wife in Rajkot in the 1940s, recalls Gopaldas in these words: `He was straightforward and generous. He was beautiful. He attracted people. If there were a hundred persons sitting in a room, he was the one you noticed.
Gujarat, and India as a whole, have travelled far in the nine decades between the 1920s and now. Much has changed, including what Gujaratis (and other Indians) eat or wear, how they travel, the way they communicate, how they furnish their homes, and what they talk or dream about. However, not every change has been pleasing. Darbar Gopaldas has been forgotten. Other heroes are remembered, including imperial ones. Uprightness is mocked, and success is measured in bricks of gold or in million-dollar units.
Maybe, as Meghani suggested, it is time for Surendra Dev to return.
What made Darbar Gopaldas unusual is also what makes him relevant for our times. Born into an elite Patidar (or Patel) clan of the village of Vaso in the fecund heartland of central Gujarat-the area known as Charotar-he also spent a great part of his life in the Saurashtra peninsula, which Gujaratis often call Kathiawad.
A Gujarati in his bones and blood, Gopaldas was a Kathiawadi in his heart and soul. He was not merely a 'mainland Gujarati'. Neither was he just a Kathiawadi. He was both. Identifying himself with all of Gujarat, in his time, he enabled all Gujaratis to relate to him. Proud yeomen farmers for centuries, the Patidars never thought they were inferior to the Rajputs who ruled scores of large or small principalities in Kathiawad. Gopaldas and his forebears were sturdy Patidars and yet, virtually uniquely among Patels, they were rulers as well.* They ruled pockets in Saurashtra, thanks to the daring of ancestor Desaibhai Amin and his alliance with the Maratha Gaekwads.
The Patidars were unlike Kathiawad's ruling Rajputs, who included the Jadejas of Jamnagar and Rajkot, the Jhalas of Wankaner, Wadhwan, Limbdi and Dhrangadhra, the Gohils of Bhavnagar, the Jethwas of Porbandar, the Chudasamas of Junagadh and others. They also differed from the bold Kathis who gave their name to the peninsula, and from the Pashtun chiefs presiding over Junagadh and a few other places in Gujarat. Here was a rare line of Patidar rajas reigning over tiny pockets in Kathiawad, including one very close to the lions of Gir in today's Amreli district.
The fascinating haveli in Vaso (12 km west of Nadiad town) that Gopaldas inherited from his `Darbar' or princely forebears is today visited by tourists for its architectural charm and the quality of its intricate woodwork. At times film producers making period movies rent the haveli, which still recalls the family's royal past.
It was not only his ability to give up his property that made Darbar Gopaldas remarkable; he was unusual in other ways too. In a period when women were even more neglected or oppressed than they are today, he protected women's rights, unmindful of the ridicule he thereby invited from relatives and others in his circle. Again, at a time when rulers measured status by the capacity to humiliate their subjects, he held up equality as a value. In fact Darbar Gopaldas even laid down-one hundred years ago-procedures whereby his own subjects, his praja, could punish him if he crossed a line.
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