That the President of India would host kings, queens and prime ministers is a given, but as incumbent Pranab Mukherjee nears the end of his term, his guest list stands out on account of its sheer range — from Bhutan royals, award-winning authors and artists to the grassroots innovator behind the mitti cool refrigerator.
It was during Mukherjee’s term that the Presidential Palace’s guest wing, which fell into disuse in the 1980s, was refurbished and opened to visiting heads of states. While Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko used the Dwarka and Nalanda suites (formerly Reading and Irwin suites) of the three-storey wing to rest between official engagements, the first guests to actually stay there, after the revamp, were Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and Queen Jetsun Pema.
Since then, the guest wing has hosted former Nepal prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal and K P Sharma Oli, the country’s president Bidya Devi Bhandari, Myanmar state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the country’s President Abdul Hamid and Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani.
The Dwarka Suite, which usually houses visiting dignitaries, is the biggest of all the rooms in the Rashtrapati Bhawan’s guest wing and has a sitting room and a private dining room. There is an antique shower in the bathroom with modern features. The furniture in the wing was designed by Lutyens himself; among the most striking being an enormous almirah with a drawer that can double up as a stepladder.
The current President opened up the palatial residence to prominent people from all strata of society through his in-residence programmes. As part of the initiative, writer Amitav Ghosh and his wife Deborah Baker stayed at Rashtrapati Bhawan last July. Ghosh, the author of books such as The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines and In An Antique Land besides others, stayed over as the writer in-residence. Other authors who spent time at the Presidential Palace under the programme were Bangla writer Binod Ghosal, Bodo writer Jwishri Boro, Gujarati writer Dhwanil Ravindrabhai Parekh and Shitanshu Gupta Maurya, an artiste from Lucknow.
The President also hosted artists such as painter Paresh Maity, Subodh Gupta, whose utensil installations are feted the world over, and Bharti Kher. Bangladeshi painter Shahabuddin Ahmed was the first foreign beneficiary of the programme. Some of the diverse grassroots innovators who spent time at the Rashtrapati Bhawan have even left their imprints on the residence of the first citizen. Rajasthan farmer Gurmail Singh Dhonsi, who had a 20-day stint in July 2014, is one such.
Dhonsi is the inventor of Rapid Compost Aerator that reduces the total time for converting biomass into manure to 25-40 days as against 90-120 days through conventional methods. Rashtrapati Bhawan has since been using the Rapid Compost Aerator and another of Dhonsi’s inventions, a tree pruner machine. He was among five innovators chosen through a nationwide selection process; subsequently many others like him have been a part of the in-residence programme in batches. Teachers from 40 central universities too have stayed as guests of the President.