Padmaja Kumari Mewar straddles several worlds — old and new, East and West.
She was born into a family of Indian royalty, maharanis who call themselves “custodians” over the region surrounding the city of Udaipur in India and who trace their lineage back 1,500 years through 77 generations.
But both by choice and necessity, Mewar, 29, and her generation seem increasingly removed from the insular wealth and privilege of their ancestors. Mewar said in an interview that she “could have chosen to live a very luxurious lifestyle without lifting a finger,” but following her entrepreneurial father and grandfather into the global business community proved too compelling.
She moved to the US to complete high school at Northfield Mount Hermon School in western Massachusetts, then earned a degree in international relations from Tulane University. She went to work as an events coordinator at Burlington Capital Markets in New York and from there, the Four Seasons New York, where over two years she worked her way up from the front desk to special services liaison for the hotel’s top 100 guests.
Mewar returned to Udaipur in 2006 to join HRH Hotels, a collection of about a dozen resorts and former Mewar family palaces and hunting lodges that was founded by her grandfather. She lives with her parents and brother in the centuries-old family palace.
Mewar is now joint managing director of the hotel company and travels extensively to promote the chain.
Though India’s tourism economy suffered after the attacks on Mumbai in November, the country is still ranked first in the world for 10-year growth potential by the World Travel & Tourism Council. But Mewar said she was pursuing new markets to expand the family business.
New York Times (NYT): You come from an upbringing in which you must have been served hand and foot, and yet now you’re in the hospitality industry serving others?
Mewar: Hospitality was not and is not a business for us; it’s a way of life. Historically, my family has been the official welcoming committee for visiting dignitaries. But it’s erroneous to think I grew up spoiled. Yes, we had privilege, but our parents taught us very early that with privilege comes responsibility — thus, “custodianship.” My late grandfather, Maharana Bhagwat Singhji, established a charitable foundation in 1969 to preserve the region’s heritage and develop better local educational infrastructure.
My father, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, added health care and support for regional crafts and arts, recently involving the Getty Foundation in our preservation initiatives. I am forging new associations with local nongovernmental organizations, such as Alakh Nayan Mandir, a medical institution dedicated to eye care, and Seva Mandir, a group advocating women’s rights. The rewarding part is when people come up to me when I visit their centers, they just want a hug. I have the means. But it’s the human connection that gives my support meaning.
NYT: How do you compare the styles of service between India and the West?
Mewar: Service isn’t necessarily part of the culture in the West. It has to be taught. In India, it’s in our DNA. We learn it in our nuclear families from the earliest age. On the other hand, Westerners deliver a kind of seamless service I admire. You don’t see the waiter refilling your glass but it gets done.