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Rashtrapati Bhavan: Of state guests and other tales from Raisina Hill

A book about state guests at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the two decades after independence recreates a momentous era.

books Updated: Jan 17, 2016 14:51 IST
Manjula Narayan
Raisina Hill

Rashtrapati Bhavan dressed up for Republic Day.(Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew)

Flip through Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew, Additional Secretary to President Pranab Mukherjee, and the reader is immediately struck by the excellent archival photographs: Here’s Chou En-lai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, linking hands with President Rajendra Prasad and Vice President S Radhakrishnan in June 1954; here’s S Radhakrishnan delivering the banquet speech as President Tito of Yugoslavia, a country that went the way of the Cold War, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, listen attentively; here’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing a banquet; here’s Liaquat Ali Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, chatting with Rajendra Prasad in April 1950...

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First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, Anastas Mikoyan (right) and Prime Minister Nehru enjoying Holi at Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 27, 1956. As Mikoyan was leaving for meetings, PM Nehru and Indira Gandhi arrived with gulal to call on President Rajendra Prasad and Mikoyan. (Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew)

A vanished world, the era of the Non Aligned Movement, when freshly independent India attempted to find that elusive middle path between the US and the USSR, emerges from these pages like some fantastic hologram. Then, there are the magnificent contemporary views of Rashtrapati Bhavan clicked by the author himself, and numerous anecdotes about everything from the crockery to the state guests. “My favourite is the one about how Patricia Nixon, wife of President Richard Nixon of the US, was gifted a basket of chicken eggs by the villagers of Chattarpur when she visited in 1969,” says Mathew.

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Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (left) with Prime Minister and crown prince Al-Sabah of Kuwait at Rashtrapati Bhavan in November 1964. During his speech Shastri praised Kuwait’s treatment of the Indian diaspora and expressed his gratitude for Kuwait’s support of India during the Chinese aggression in 1962. (Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew)

It was the year of the Moon Landing and, apparently, it had been announced that the lady was from the “country that had conquered the moon”. Unfortunately, much was lost in translation and the villagers, who thought Mrs Nixon actually lived on the moon, rushed to give her a delicacy that, no doubt, continues to be rarely found on the banks of the Sea of Tranquillity.

Patricia Nixon, President Rajendra Prasad and US Vice President Richard Nixon in Mughal Gardens in December 1953. When Nixon next visited on July 31, 1969, he had become President. The 22-hour trip made him the only US leader to have visited India as Vice President and President. (Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew)

The book draws on the archives of the presidential estate, biographies of world leaders, national and international newspapers of the time, declassified documents, and on interviews with retired Rashtrapati Bhavan employees.

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Vice President of the US Lyndon Johnson with his wife Lady Bird at Taj Mahal, Agra in May 1961. A “hard, high and separate bed” had to be made for Johnson, who was nearly six foot four inches tall. After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Johnson became the 36th President of the US. Sworn in on the US Presidential aircraft, he was the only US President to take the oath in air. (Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew)

“For some of the interesting stories I got in the bearers and household staff who had long retired. Through the pension, we got to their address, got them to Delhi or talked to them on the phone. Whoever was not suffering from dementia was spoken to!” says Mathew, adding that the book got its impetus because the President is a keen historian. “He loves history; loves the contextualization of history. He wanted this book,” he says, adding wryly “otherwise why would I do something like this? Working after office hours from 7pm to 4am every day for nine months – that’s how long the project took — is no joke!”

Between 1947 and 1967, the Star of India crockery sets were used for banquets. These were made by T Goode & Co, Culdon Ltd, and Pellatt & Wood. Information about the cutlery and crockery was gleaned from interviews with Ram Chander who worked as Chief Butler in Rashtrapati Bhavan and Abdul Majid who worked as Head Butler. (Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew)