It is not something anyone would have predicted even a decade ago but the trendiest destination in India now is Jodhpur. I was there just after Christmas for the Royal Salute polo tournament, an annual event that attracts some of the best polo players from all around the world, and was astonished to discover that this event was only the latest in a long series of glamorous happenings in Jodhpur over the last few months.
The city was still reeling from the glittering birthday celebration of Vlad Doronin whose girlfriend Naomi Campbell had invited all her fashionable friends: Anna Sui, Kate Moss, Vivienne Westwood, Eva Herzigova and innumerable other supermodels. In the fuss, John Galliano, making a rare public appearance, went almost unnoticed as did the thin, slightly haggard woman on his arm. She turned out to be Demi Moore.
The party had various other A-listers who were not so easily recognisable: Brian Grazer, the top Hollywood producer, Wendi Murdoch (wife of Rupert), Tina Green (wife of rag-trade billionaire and Topshop owner Philip), the singer Holly Candy and veteran musician and record producer Quincy Jones. As part of the celebrations, Diana Ross performed in the gardens of the Umaid Bhawan Palace as did Chaka Khan and Buddy Davis. There had also been a big Bollywood wedding (which the locals were far more excited about) with Ajay Devgn, Priyanka Chopra, Sridevi, Anil Kapoor, Sonakshi Sinha, Sonam Kapoor and others in attendance.
Then, there’s the annual folk festival which draws the cream of the world music community and which has been attended in recent years by Mick Jagger and Sting. Both rock stars are, of course, personal friends of Gaj Singh, the immensely popular Maharaja of Jodhpur (called Bapji by nearly everyone) and are in and out of Jodhpur. Jagger was also in Jodhpur for the wedding of Gaj Singh’s son and Sting is due there in a month or so to perform (again in the garden of Umaid Bhawan) at an event in aid of the Head Injuries Foundation set up by Gaj Singh after his son suffered a fall from a horse. What makes Jodhpur so glamorous to the international set? Partly it is that it is a clean and sparkling town where time often seems to have stayed still for decades. Jaipur, for instance, has been ruined by haphazard development and is pretty much your average nasty overcrowded dusty North India town. Jodhpur, on the other hand, has retained its charm.But mostly, I think, it is Gaj Singh who has put Jodhpur on the map. The Maharaja has managed to straddle two worlds with ease. He is entirely unaffected, easily approachable and – despite Harrow and Oxford – completely Indian and Rajasthani in his style and speech. But he is also at home with the jet-set. Years and years ago, before Jodhpur was so famous, the late, great Jean-Louis Dumas of Hermes would fly in to spend Holi with Bapji. That tradition continues: the Jodhpur Holi is still speckled with designers, rock stars and the likes of Chelsea Clinton.
The glamour in Jodhpur is centred around two locations. There is the spectacular Mehrangarh Fort which is now familiar all over the world because of its cameo appearance in The Dark Knight Rises. And there is Umaid Bhawan itself. It differs from the average Rajasthani palace because it was built in the 20th century and Gaj Singh calls it a Jazz Age palace because of its architectural style. So, just as the palace combines Marwar royal style with the spirit of the Great Gatsby, so Jodhpur has become a magnet for both those who want the Rajasthan experience and those who just want to party.
Most international visitors to Jodhpur combine both Mehrangarh and Umaid Bhawan during their visits. For instance, Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale and rest of The Dark Knight Rises team stayed at Umaid Bhawan but shot in the environs of Mehrangarh. (In case you are wondering about Christian Bale’s temper – the subject of so many articles in the tabloid press – the staff at Umaid Bhawan loved him. And he, in turn, was delighted to be able to roam the streets without people pointing and screaming ‘Batman!’ or even ‘Bruce Wayne!’.)
My guess is that the Royal Salute polo has chosen to locate itself in Jodhpur over the last four years, largely because of Bapji. Royal Salute is the premium brand from Chivas Royal. Its manufacturers do very little to promote the whisky either here or in America and Europe and its success relies on word of mouth and its reputation among lovers of fine blended Scotch. As far as I can tell, the Royal Salute polo is one of the few promotional events that the brand engages in. And so this year, along with the international polo players, Jodhpur also hosted the global media including a full contingent from China.
The image of Royal Salute with its echoes of kings and courts makes it a perfect fit with Bapji’s royal-but-full-of-modern-glamour Jodhpur. Apart from the polo which Bapji, whose Jodhpur team was taking part, attended regularly, there were many other events with Rajasthan/royal connections. We went to a derby, in which camels took the place of horses, at a camel camp near Osian, an hour or so from Umaid Bhawan. Then there was a fashion show on the lawns of Umaid Bhawan, with Soha Ali Khan as show-stopper and quite spectacular women’s clothes by Raghavendra Rathore, one of Jodhpur’s favourite sons and among India’s top designers. Bapji also hosted a Royal Salute Ball at Umaid Bhawan. The card said Black Tie or National Dress which meant that the foreigners came in dinner jackets, the Rajputs in bandhgallas and us visiting civilians in normal suits.
The highlight of the Ball was the presentation of a special blend of Royal Salute, created in honour of Bapji. Most of us know of Royal Salute as an exceptional whisky but what I did not realise till I went to Jodhpur is that the Royal Salute name encompasses a range of whiskies. The first Royal Salute was created in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and since then Royal Salute has been blended in small quantities from aged whiskies, the youngest of which is 21 years old. But now, there are other variations in the Royal Salute range. There’s a Royal Salute 100 Cask selection which is produced in limited releases of only 100 casks, which have been aged and hand-selected so that the whisky is creamy and elegant. There’s a Royal Salute 38-year-old in which the youngest whisky is 38 years old and some are even older. And there’s also a Royal Salute 62 Gun Salute, which is named after the annual celebrations of the Queen’s Coronation. The youngest whisky in this blend is 40 years and because it is the premium expression of Royal Salute, this variation is extremely rare and hard to find.
But I imagine that the whisky that Royal Salute blended in honour of Bapji will be even rarer. Because the imagery of the original Royal Salute is drawn from the British monarchy, it made sense to create a blend that honoured an Indian Maharaja. Sadly, I doubt if the rest of us will ever get our hands on this blend. Nearly a decade ago, I interviewed Bapji on TV and he talked about his dreams for Jodhpur. He has had an interesting and unusual life, becoming the Maharaja suddenly when he was only four years old. (His father died in a plane crash. One version of the story was told in the movie Zubeidaa.) Despite spending many years abroad at school and university, he was always determined to return to Jodhpur and to do something for the city.
He remembered that Umaid Bhawan was constructed by his grandfather so that the people of Jodhpur could find employment during the droughts that afflicted the region in the 1920s and 1930s. The palace took so long to finish that by the time it was finally ready in 1943, the era of the Maharajas was drawing to a close. The challenge before Bapji has always been to maintain the example set by his grandfather and to use the 374-room Umaid Bhawan (it used to be ranked as one of the largest private residences in the world) and its 28 acres of gardens for the good of the people of Jodhpur.
After many false starts, Bapji seems to have finally found the right mix of solutions. He still lives in Umaid Bhawan but he has given over most of the palace to the Taj Group, which runs it as a luxury hotel with just 80 or so rooms, many of them suites. The reputation of Umaid Bhawan as one of the world’s finest palace hotels (and under Ashish Kumar Rai, the hotel is exceptionally well run) draws the jet-set to Jodhpur. And with each plane-load of revellers and holiday makers, the city grows that much more prosperous.
So, here’s my advice: if you haven’t been to Jodhpur yet, you should go soon. See the city while it is still relatively unspoilt. And while Bapji can still enjoy his Royal Salute in peace.
From HT Brunch, January 20
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch