A Quick Walk in Baroda
Baroda aka Vadodara can be done as a comfortable day-trip from Amdavad. That is if one has a car, I don't have one so I could take in only what could be taken in on foot over 6 steamy hours. I had gone there with little preparatory reading and had only heard the names: 'Sayaji Rao Gaikwad', 'Laxmi Vilas' and 'Nazar Bagh palace' and also that the city houses some paintings by Ravi Varma. And I had but briefly called up Gyani and was told: "take a look at the University; it was once upon a time, a very good one".
Just out of the station, a grand stone-built edifice with faint echoes of Madras's Presidency Gollege attracts one's attention - the 'Arts Block'of the University. I went in and walked around the building. A student there gave me directions to the nearby Sayaji park and its museum, which turned out to be pretty interesting. It has works of art from Bali (for instance, a unique 'Matsya Avatara' with Vishnu emerging from the mouth of a big fish, the figures looking flat and two-dimensional, like shadow puppets); Burma was represented by an elaborately forged metallic tree with a casket embedded therein; there was stuff from China (Tao immortals), Japan and other eastern lands and Nepal. And there are marbles - identical or near-identical copies of European masterpieces: a Venus Demilo, so big and solid she looks a gendarme all right, the Pergamon Friezes with struggling figures (broken and weathered where they are broken and weathered in the original), Michelangelo's 'Slaves', his Moses (but a whit smaller than the original) and most prominently, right in the middle of a hall, a group of six-foot plus damsels, the 'Three Graces' by Canova - this last piece an object of much furtive or embarassed eyeing by visitors (a surprisingly large number of whom looked very rural folk). There is also an alleged Titian (not particularly good) and an interesting genre painting titled 'Tired Out' (it appears to show a poor mother nursing an infant with several other and not very elder offspring standing around and vying for her attention) by, if I remember right, a French painter called Carabineu.
From Akota, which appears to be a suburb of Baroda, have come several old Jain bronzes - most showing dhoti-clad Tirthankaras. The oldest among the lot (500 AD) predate the far more famous Natarajas by at least three centuries. And a mummy has come all the way from Egypt.
I skipped a large portion of the musuem (including a 'blue whale skeleton' which hangs somewhere) and the adjoining 'City Gallery' and walked long and hard to reach Laxmi vilas palace. Few visitors cough up the 150 bucks to get in and walk around - guided by headphones. The compound stretches for kilometers, the huge main building is an interesting hotch-potch of several north-Indian and western styles. Visitors are allowed to see about a third of its ground floor (above are 3 or 4 floors still occupied by the Gaikwads, the erstwhile royal family of Baroda). Crowning it all is a 200 foot tower which sprouts 4 branches at its corners near the top and looks like a trident or a candelabrum from afar.
The abundant decorative sculpture includes a 'Modest Venus' in a courtyard, a vase supported by Satyrs (the headphone wrongly calls them sphinxes), some martial Greco-Roman figures, marble portraits of local royalty, the six Muses,... Then there are heraldic figures, elaborate chandeliers, navvari-draped, trumpet-blowing angels and other winged figures flying out of corners and niches,...
The 'throne hall' (the throne itself is just a simple seat with functional cushions, no gold, no gems, nothing) has six paintings by Ravi Varma. The familiar Saraswati and Lakshmi (lovely in a very Marathi way, this provinciality appropriate given that the Gaikwads are Marathas) and 4 other uninteresting mythologicals - Sita being swallowed by Earth watched by a wimpy and mustachioed Rama, a dull 'Kichaka-Sairandhri',...
The Ravi Varmas notwithstanding, the most interesting single work of art at Laxmi Vilas must be a large mosaic group on an outer wall of the building: A Maratha nobleman, assisted by an airborne Winged Victory-like figure garlands his somewhat pensive bride. The couple sit on an elegant throne atop what looks like a chabutra - a platform marking a cremation site. Nearby stand a soldier and a maid and a couple of monkeys(why?). In the near background, a massive fire (or pyre) emits huge clouds of smoke. I could only interpret this mosaic as an allegory - the apotheosis of a 'Sati'. If the guess is right, it is a huge surprise that the mosaic was done by a European sometime around 1900, a life-time *after* Sati was outlawed by the British (those curious readers of mine may check it out here: http://www.lonelyplanetimages.com/images/649627?group=369155582). Did Maratha ladies practise Sati? And did they not mark cremation sites with 'chhatris'(domed pavilions) rather than chabutras?
I had heard a certain Gaikwad had got a pair of life-size cannons cast in pure gold. I did not see them. But there were hundreds and hundreds of swords in the 'Shastragar', including one allegedly weilded by Aurangzeb.
A further 3 km walk (which went past a vast tank with a 60 foot plus modern Siva statue in the middle and a park where sits a colossal Kamakura Daibutsu-type Buddha) took me to the old city. This is a mixed Hindu-Muslim area and known to be prone to communal trouble but unlike, say Hyderabad, I could sense no tension in the air. Nazarbagh palace, which is quite close to the central square, is a big 4 storey building with impressive Corintian columns and arches but in spectacular neglect - plaster peeling off, walls crumbling, weeds sprouting all over... The compound is used for games of tennis ball cricket and gilli-danda and as a car park. Wiki says this palace was built in 1721 but it looks more 19th century and, apart from its color, is vaguely reminscent of the Writers' building in Calcutta (or was it Hyderabad's Falaknuma palace? Whatever, 1721 sounds dubious!).
Baroda is not quite the leafy-sleepy-royal Mysore to Amdavad's Bangalore. Especially in its northern suburbs, the air is thick with chemicals and gas flares flutter atop petro-installations. Note: It is quite an irony that these flares, a powerful visual symbolizing the petrochemical industy, usually result from faulty technology and constitute a major environmental hazard.