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We can all be royal

Perhaps because I don't know many, I used to think of 'royals' as one of a kind. For me they were a type. One was as good or as bad as the other. It turns out that's only a first impression, Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 12, 2012 01:17 IST
Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar
Hindustan Times

Perhaps because I don't know many, I used to think of 'royals' as one of a kind. For me they were a type. One was as good or as bad as the other. It turns out that's only a first impression.

The truth is they come in a bewildering number of shapes and sizes. And because they're royal, they exaggerate and revel in their differences. Even the impact they make can be very different. Some are gracious and charming. Others, very definitely, are not.

On the one hand, there's the delightful, if apocryphal, story of Queen Mary which my father loved to tell. During the Imperial tour of India in 1911, King George and Queen Mary were guests at a grand army dinner. The table was 100-feet long with the King at one head and the Queen at the other. When finger bowls were served, some of the younger Indian officers, unaccustomed to this practice, started to drink. Their innocent, if improper, gesture reduced the British officers to mirth. Sensing the embarrassment of the Indians, the Queen cupped her hands around her finger bowl and raised it to her lips.

An immediate hush descended on the table. Every British officer rushed to repeat the Queen's action. Most were forced to drink from bowls they had just soiled. In an instant, Her Majesty's thoughtful gesture had neatly turned the tables. The Indians had the last laugh.

The other, and opposite, example is the story of the short tubby person I once met at a cocktail in London in the '80s. His round face was so richly covered by his beard he resembled the man from Mohenjodaro. I was soon to discover he had bronze age graces too.

I introduced myself and politely asked what he did. "I'm in hotels," was his terse reply. "Which one?" I asked, ignoring his taciturnity. "The Lake Palace at Udaipur." "Ah!," I said. "So you work for the Tatas?" "No," he snapped back. "The Tatas work for me." That put me in my place.

Last week, I received a book with a foreword by this man. It's a collection of photographs of the Maharajahs of India, each posing for the camera and trying hard to make an impression. It's called Royal Indian Portraits and proves my point. No two Maharajahs are alike and yet, taken together, there's something very similar about all of them. The author is Pramod Kumar KG. The foreword is by Arvind Singh Mewar who, idiosyncratically, describes himself as the 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar.

The pictures are a joy to see. They prove a point my cousin Mala Singh has often, and sometimes loudly, made. We should never have abolished the Maharajahs. Instead, we should have showcased them.

As I pored over the photographs, I realised why we're so fascinated by royals. Be they British or desi, ancient or contemporary, bejeweled or in uniform, they know how to attract attention. Like actors - or, dare I say it, harlots - they want to be seen, noted and remembered. They're not for looking at and passing on. They're to be studied, evaluated and, hopefully, admired. And, usually, they succeed.

Ultimately, it's not pedigree and chronology, titles and crowns, or, even, jewels and silks that capture our attention but style and self-projection. The advantage royals have is they've been doing it for generations. It's become natural. But it also follows that given sufficient practice we can all be kings - or queens!

The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Jun 30, 2012 22:35 IST