If, like me, you’re fascinated by the foibles of our maharajas than I suggest you dig deep into your pocket this Christmas and buy one of the most delightful coffee-table books on this exotic tribe. Simply called Maharaja, it’s published to accompany a major exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum on the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts. That it does magnificently. But what’s captured my attention are the incredible stories about the maharajas themselves. It’s the sort of stuff I could spend several happy hours reading on a lazy sunday.
So, if the extravagances of Indian royalty tickle your fancy, get yourself a decent cup of coffee — or, if it’s the evening, a decent drink — and read on. Ranjitsinhji, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, is best known as a cricketer. It turns out he was also a skilled designer. He “invented improvements to all manner of practical goods, from chairs and tables to picnic baskets and travelling dressing tables. His design for a sliding cigarette case was taken up by Asprey’s and put into production.”
Ranji was also fascinated by jewellery. But this was a taste he shared with practically all the maharajas. In 1928, when Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala visited Paris he arrived at the Boucheron boutique with six iron chests of precious stones. “As well as numerous sapphires, rubies and pearls, the collection included over 7,000 diamonds and more than 14,000 emeralds.”
Not surprisingly, sartorial elegance was another maharaja fetish. In his autobiography the famous Italian shoe designer, Salvatore Ferragamo, mentions that Indira Devi of Cooch Behar once ordered more than a hundred pairs! “Among them (was) a pair made with pearls and diamonds.” Another, made of green velvet had a spiral of pearls running up the heel whilst a third, in black velvet, had a diamond buckle and rows of diamonds, this time running down the heel!
The maharajas were not just vain but also rather delighted with themselves. They couldn’t resist being photographed or commissioning portraits. But the painting of Maharaja Yashwant Rao Holkar II of Indore in white tie has to be seen to be believed. If Noel Coward were dipped in royal blue ink he’d probably look identical!
As westernisation caught on — increasingly from the 1880s onwards — the maharajas started building western-style palaces which, of course, had to be furnished. Nawab Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbassi IV of Bhawalpur commissioned a silver bed from Christofle in Paris. At each corner were four naked female figures. “Through ingenious mechanics linked to the mattress, the Nawab was able to set the alluring figures in motion so that they fanned him while winking, all against a 30-minute cycle of music from Gounod’s Faust.”
Cars were another maharaja fancy. The Maharaja of Mysore had 24 Rolls-Royces and Bentleys alone. The Nizam, conscious of his status, commissioned from Barker and Company a car with a special elevated rear seat so he would always be higher than his staff. Bhupal Singh of Mewar, who presumably couldn’t afford a similar extravagance, achieved the same effect by making his aide-de-camp squat on the floor. Whilst Jai Singh of Alwar had his car interiors lined with French tapestry in preference to plain leather.
Undoubtedly this is proof of their frivolous, foolish, foppish ways but can’t you also accept Kipling’s comment that “God created the maharajas so that mankind could have the spectacle of jewels and marble palaces?” I’d say they were the sine qua non of the je ne sais quoi!
The views expressed by the author are personal .