HT Brunch Cover Story: How to be a 21-year-old maharaja in the 21st century
Sawai Padmanabh Singh Bahadur of Jaipur talks about marrying traditions with todayUpdated: Nov 02, 2019 23:52 IST
It’s hard to believe that the tall, lithe figure sitting on the gold-upholstered sofa in the opulent, Sukh Niwas in the City Palace of Jaipur, is just 21 years old. The 303rd descendant of the Kachhawas of Jaipur, His Highness Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh Bahadur of Jaipur, clad in a white linen shirt, white trousers and Rajasthani mojaris, looks more like a Hollywood star than a royal. He’s gained celebrity status, thanks to being on the cover of GQ Spain, walking the ramp for Dolce & Gabbana in Milan, and accompanying Reese Witherspoon’s daughter Ava to the debutant ball Le Bal in Paris. Not to mention his collaborations with international fashion brands like Cifonelli and Ralph Lauren, his appearances in the New York Post and his inclusion in a list of jetsetting world royals on Instagram. All this is normal for Padmanabh Singh (Pacho to his friends), a globetrotting student of art history at one of Rome’s oldest universities.
Schooled at Mayo College, Ajmer, and later Millfield, UK, Padmanabh was anointed Maharaja of Jaipur at the age of 14 when his grandfather, the late His Highness Brigadier Maharaja Bhawani Singh Bahadur, passed away in 2011. I first met him on a polo field in Jodhpur when he was a serious 16-year-old. Over the years, my connection with his family – my grandfather, Colonel Thakur Rajendra Singh of Rohet, served as ADC (aide-de-camp) to Padmanabh’s great-grandfather, the late His Highness Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur in the 1940s – allowed me to watch him evolve to the self-assured, polite and highly driven man that he is today, whether it’s on the polo field – he has his own team in Jaipur, and at 18 was the youngest player to join the national polo team that participated in the World Cup – or as the very fashionable symbol of Jaipur.
Padmanabh sees himself as an ambassador for his city and his country. “I want everything I do to be about a cause – my city, which my family has served for generations,” he says.
Jaipur writes its history as a living, breathing city full of culture, architecture, arts and crafts, he explains. “That’s what attracts more and more people to it every year. And I can use the media to attract as many eyes to my city as possible.”
To this end, Padmanabh attends college events and art vernissages in Jaipur, and is involved in the eponymous charity run by his mother, Princess Diya Kumari of Jaipur. “I try to attract as many eyes as possible to the rights of women so we can create as many jobs for them as we can,” he says. “I wouldn’t say women are the equals of men – I would say they’re much superior. They give birth to us. And they have made so many sacrifices in the past.”
“Historically, in Rajasthan, a maharaja was the ‘first among equals’, the leader of the clan; not a dictator!”
He even posts snapshots of royal ceremonies at the palace, such as the recent Ashwa Pooja during Dussehra, on his Instagram account. “Our traditions, ceremonies, and the fact that we still perform them – this is what sets India apart,” he says. “People don’t visit India for the malls. We need to be informed about our history and be proud of it.”
King of cool
Padmanabh’s desire to meld the ancient with the modern is real, and it’s a role he’s intent on creating for himself. “We live in a fully democratic country. My grandfather became maharaja before the Emergency when we still had the privy purses, and he dedicated his life to the army. My role is one I have to write for myself. One has to define a maharaja’s position in today’s world depending on the circumstances.”
He has other ambitions too, like winning polo tournaments and is set on the World Cup team selections in March. “My grandfather did it in the army, my mother did it in politics, and if I can make my contribution in polo, I’ll be very happy,” he says.
Meanwhile, his good looks make him very camera-friendly, and when we shoot at the Baradari restaurant, curious patrons wander over, taking pictures of this tanned young man with his shock of glossy, black hair.
“I wouldn’t say women are the equals of men – I would say they’re much superior”
“It’s important not to get carried away by all of this – that is something my grandmother always tells me,” says Padmanabh. “You must remember your roots and who you really are. People put me on their shoulders after a polo match and tell me about the time they watched my great-grandfather play and when he scored at 300 yards – these are my roots.”
These anecdotes connect his family to the people of Jaipur, and he wants to give back, just as his grandfather did. “He never disappointed anyone; until he had answered every person or taken a picture or signed an autograph, he wouldn’t leave, and he would sit with the people and eat with them,” says the young maharaja. “I try to be like that. I make sure I know the names of the servers. I’ve seen how hard they work and how underappreciated they are.”
In doing this, Padmanabh is reaching further back into his family’s history. “Historically, in Rajasthan, a maharaja was the ‘first among equals,’ not a dictator! He was the leader of the clan, and the people made him who he was,” he says.
When younger, Padmanabh stopped people from touching his feet, but his grandmother told him, ‘If it allows people to connect with your grandfather, don’t crush their dreams.’
Hospitality is as rooted in his persona as humility. “My family is known for giving guests a glimpse of India,” he says. “This terrace, in fact all the floors of this palace, were built for entertaining. It’s only right to put them back to their original use.” I recall he’d told me about Prince Charles and Princess Diana dining with his grandparents; Jackie Onassis, and recently Oprah Winfrey too enjoyed a meal with the family at the giant Lalique dining table.
“I recently Airbnb’ed it in Barcelona; the experience of being hosted by locals was something money cannot buy!”
“My parents sent me to school in England, so I made friends there. I make it a point to travel a few months every year, because everywhere, people do things a bit differently. That helps you realise that you could be chasing something that won’t even make you happy, while other people are so satisfied with what they have,” says Padmanabh. “I love to travel and meet new people. But my goal remains to invite these people to India, to show them our ways. Some of the things we do in India? Nobody does them better than us.”
Not counting Jaipur, Padmanabh’s favourite places are the South of France and Italy. “I recently Airbnb’ed it in Barcelona. The experience of being hosted by a local was extraordinary; something money cannot buy!”
While studying abroad he cooked his own meals, lived in his own apartment, and hung out with a diverse circle of friends. But Padmanabh is happiest on the polo field, though when he needs to unwind, his favourite place is at the top of the City Palace, in Mukut Mandir, with its sweeping views of the city.
Over the last year, Padmanabh’s concept of a modern day maharaja has solidified. While he is not ready to join his mother in politics, and he’s most definitely not ready for marriage – “There are a lot of things I need to do in life before I think of marriage,” he says.
“I managed to work out eight to 10 fields of interest from sport, fashion and travel, to inviting people to Jaipur and performing ceremonial duties,” he says. “That is the role of a modern maharaja: to continue to change with the times, but also to remember your roots and constantly remind people that this is really what makes India so culturally rich and so special.”
He adds: “I’m proud that I come from Jaipur and that I come from this lineage. That drives me to work hard at university, to work hard in polo, and when I start working at home, I have a lot of interesting projects in mind. Two years from now, you’ll sit in this exact same spot, and I’ll tell you about it!”
Author bio: Priya Kumari Rana is a Delhi-based lifestyle journalist who has worked with publications like Harper’s Bazaar and Outlook. She hails from Rajasthan, where her grandfather served as aide-de-camp to Padmanabh’s great-grandfather in the 1940s.
From HT Brunch, November 3, 2019
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