One Fort, Many Destinies: Priyamvada Singh’s Homecoming & the Re-Becoming of Meja
There was little in terms of life transformation that Priyamvada baisa had assumed while working amidst the hustle and bustle of Mumbai’s media kaleidoscope until she undertook a small homeward break from work. The former assistant director and media freelancer, who had enjoyed eight highly successful years in the film and television industry, decided on taking a quick impromptu trip to her ancestral village, a visit that would alter her life forever.
Hailing from the Meja thikana of Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district, Priyamvada returned to her motherland only to discover that her family’s ancestral fort lay neglected and in shambles. The fort’s dilapidated form was particularly heart-wrenching for Priyamvada, considering that it used to serve as an abode to her illustrious forefathers, the Rawats of Meja, who bore the historical privilege of serving the erstwhile Maharanas of Mewar as one of their several umraos (the highest feudal barons). Despite the changing milieu of democratic India and its regal discontents, Priyamvada took it upon herself to restore the Meja fort back to its original glory.
Her combined decisions of relinquishing her established mode of occupation and return to a rural setting in order to single-handedly undertake a complex renovation project were initially met with a fair deal of reservations by her hesitant family members and the people of Meja. However, her strong focus and determination would soon prove that Priyamvada’s intents were anything but faint hearted. She describes the start of her journey: “initially my family was quite reluctant to have me- a single girl (I was unmarried then), stay there all alone, and the entire village was also skeptical and cynical about my move. But my hard work and determination would replace their doubts in the time to come. What started as a passion project of a more personal nature soon transformed into a movement of community upliftment.”
As she eloquently puts it, Priyamvada’s restoration project, an idea that had been generated out of personal motives, had soon manifested into a progressive opportunity for the village community of Meja. Her specific choice of deploying traditional construction styles for the renovation process, such as dry masonry, chuna plaster, samla work, etc. created employment opportunities for many of the village’s retired masons and artisans and enabled them to rediscover their professions. It didn’t take these men long to revive their rusted tools and skillsets by the means of Priyamvada’s renovation drive on the completion of which, they received work offers for other conservation projects within the state.
The winds of change and occupational reinvigoration were not limited to Meja’s menfolk alone. An increasing number of women from the village began to join Priyamvada’s labour force. “Considering that the project was being initiated by a girl, many local women felt encouraged to join me as labourers. Their families had no reluctance about sending their wives and daughters to work for another woman. Most of these women were housewives who had never earned a livelihood before”, Priyamvada adds. She also credits this female inclusion of labour for providing her a first-hand glimpse into women empowerment. In her words, “I saw the rising confidence levels of these women once they realised their own potential beyond domestic chores.”
Even the physically disabled populace of Meja were welcomed by Priyamvada in order to contribute in accordance with their personal capacities. The financial independence that they received in return was accompanied by a bolstered sense of self-confidence and independence.
As Priyamvada and her localised workforce heralds the revisitation of Fort Meja, it is duly commendable to note its deliberate constitution as an upcoming platform for communitarian activities. In this regard, Priyamvada has introduced the concept of a community library that is being set up in the fort’s premises. An online donation drive conducted by her resulted in the successful collection of over two thousand books that have been generously contributed by her friends and associates. “Since the area lacks public libraries, this initiative will hopefully open a world of avenues for the villagers of Meja and around”, she says.
The Meja Fort compound has also served as a popular venue for several community-based activities, such as festive celebrations, blood donation camps and yoga workshops. In an effort to revive age-old traditions, Priyamvada is bringing her rural community together to jointly celebrate local festivals such as Gangaur, Jal-Jhoolni Ekadashi, etc. In order to arouse cultural interest amongst the youngsters, inter-village competitions are being organised in order to incentivise socio-cultural activities around the festivals.
As a part of the transformative wave that Priyamvada instilled in Meja, it would be virtually impossible for her to bypass her media expertise as a tool of optimisation, and rightfully so. She imparted her professional experience in order to create a cultural hub in Meja wherein people from her former work life would be invited to collaborated with the local populace in order to create mutual opportunities of collaboration. To begin with, Vijayeta Kumar, one of Priyamvada’s director friends shot a short film titled Blouse in Meja. “Some villagers acted in it and others worked as local crew, and this not only gave them an earning opportunity, it also put them on an international platform as this film went on to win the Best Short Film at NYIFF, got screened at other international festivals, and even saw a theatrical release at PVR Cinemas. I have also facilitated the participation of some talented kids from this region in reality shows”, Priyamvada elaborates.
Her courageous vision and relentless efforts vis-a-vis community development in her ancestral village earned Priyamvada the prestigious ‘Advantage Woman Awards’ by ICICI and the ‘Veer Durga Das Smriti Samiti award’ in association with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust. Alongside her communitarian endeavours in Meja, Priyamvada continues to work on television and other media projects on a freelance basis.
Inspirational stories like Priyamvada’s lay strong testament to the power that lies in one’s genuine intent to bring about positive and progressive change in any area or field that they might set their heart on. The sheer existence of the will to contribute supersedes all professional, gender and logistical barriers, and Priyamvada leads a powerful example of this. Her concluding statement is as poignant as it is passionate, “I feel that as Meja fort rises from slumber, it raises along with it the most underutilized potential in this country – the rural populace. This fort will soon become a community run home stay where the villagers from different walks of life will come together to offer exquisite warmth & hospitality to the guests, but while there’s still some time for that, all these initiatives are surely giving a facelift to our little village and redefining lives.”
Rajputana Collective extends its compliments and earnest support to Priyamvada and her community incentives in Meja. May you instil more homecomings for the greater good of the land and its people.