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Beds and bitches of the Maharajas

india Updated: Nov 18, 2006 23:08 IST
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There’s a collector in every one of us,” said the voice over the radio. It was 9.15 in the morning, I was dressing and only half listening. But I distinctly heard the words and they immediately caught my attention. “The problem is most of us don’t know what to collect. But if you look carefully each of us has a collection of something.”

I find this simple observation irrefutable. I collect things without even realising what I’m up to. Clothes, objets d’art, theatre programmes, hotel pens and even boxes of matches. But there’s one commodity I collect with careful deliberation — books. I like to surround myself with them. Their presence is reassuring and comforting. Even if you don’t read them, you feel you have access to knowledge and wisdom.

Amongst those I most like are some others consider least useful. Not novels or biographies, nor histories and analytical studies but large glossy picture books, with striking photographs and dramatic prose that leaps out and grabs your attention. Last week I added one of the best to my library. It’s Amin Jaffer’s Made for Maharajas. To be honest, the cover is too stark to be attractive but once you flip past what follows is a delight.

It’s a pictorial study of the designs of the Maharajas embracing a vast range of examples from their jewellery and crockery to the architecture they promoted and the stationary they used. Most of it was fabulous, some of it a trifle gauche, but all of it is riveting.

For instance, did you know that the princes of Patiala were sartorial peacocks? Bhupinder Singh, who ruled from 1910 to 1938, wore a 13 string pearl necklace. He also had another with 2,930 diamonds amounting to a total of 962 karats. A ruby necklace, photographed around the neck of one of his six wives, could easily be mistaken for mailchain armour. I’m sure it would deflect bullets. No wonder the poor queen seems overwhelmed by it.

The Maharaja’s favourite photographer was Vandyk — who in 1938 photographed my mother as well — and as you see him striking poses you can’t help wonder what he would have thought of his grandson-in-law, Natwar Singh.

In some ways the Bhawalpur bed is even more startling. Encrusted with silver, it was commissioned from Christoffle in France. It has four naked women instead of ordinary posters. They are said to represent France, Spain, Italy and Greece. It also has an in-built music box that can play a 30 minute interlude from Gounod’s Faust. I wonder if anyone actually ever got to sleep on it?

The little stories the book offers are no less captivating. For example, Gaekwad Sayajirao-III of Baroda would always travel abroad with his own cooks, groceries and two cows. Madho Singh of Jaipur set off for Edward VII’s coronation in 1901 with four silver urns filled with 9,000 litres of ganga jal, whilst in 1928 Bhupinder Singh arrived in Paris with a retinue of forty servants and six iron chests of precious stones. He gave Cartier the largest single commission it has ever received.

And were you aware that Ranjitsinghji was as famous for his jewellery as his batting? He used to travel with several suitcases full of rings, watches and ornaments. He bought the 136-karat Queen of Holland diamond which he promptly re-named after himself.

In his day the Nawanagar treasury counted its wealth in terms of Ranji’s necklaces!

Cars, however, were as much an object of joy as a problem for the princes. Because he wanted to be seated higher than his subjects, Osman Ali Khan, Nizam of Hyderabad, commissioned one with an elevated rear seat. Bhopal Singh of Udaipur found a cheaper way round the same problem. His aide-de-camp was made to squat on the floor. But my personal prize for imagination goes to Krishnaraja-IV of Mysore whose Ford saloon was so large it included ‘a Hindu place of worship’ and ‘a bath in which the Maharaja makes his ablutions’.

But they didn’t just spoil themselves. In the 1930s the Maharajas were equally generous to their dogs. Roshanara, the Nawab of Junagadh’s favourite bitch, was formally married to Bobby, the Nawab of Mangrol’s Golden Retriever. She was carried to the wedding in a silver palanquin and the ceremonies lasted for three days. Alas, the Viceroy, who was invited, declined to attend. He considered it beneath his dignity. Today his countrymen might argue that was a most un-English thing to do!

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