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How Indian maharajahs indulged themselves
Kishore Singh | October 28, 2006
Consider these labels: Baccarat, Boucheron, Christofle, Cartier, Daimler Chrysler, Ferragamo, Fortnum & Mason, Hermes, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lalique, Louis Vuitton, Mauboussin, Van Cleef & Arpels� A list of brands lining up for their Indian debut?
You couldn't be more wrong, for these, and more, luxury labels had long been in touch with Indian princes and princesses, the exotic maharajas and maharanis who, having surrendered their armies to Pax Britannica, were now free to pursue more elegant pastimes that included indulging themselves with the richest baubles the West could offer them.
They dressed in outfits especially created for them by Chaumet and Henry Pool & Co, had themselves photographed at the studios of Lafayette and Van Dyck, posed for paintings by Tilly Kettle, John Zoffany, Xaver Winterhalter and Philip de Laszlo, or pictures by Cecil Beaton, Man Ray and Bernard Boutet de Manvel.
Henri Cartier-Bresson and Tiffany spent years developing jewels especially to suit their tastes. They ate off crockery from Copeland, Minton, Spode and Royal Worcester, commissioned Charles Mant, Edwin Lutyens and Henry Lanchester as architects for their palaces, ordered fleets of cars from Roll-Royce, Mercedes and Bentley, and had decorators Eckart Muthesius and F&C Osler design their royal saloons, boats and aeroplane interiors.
As a life of pomp and celebration, it couldn't get any better, and a 1928 feature in Sunday Express quoted British public opinion as suggesting that the Indian princes "have nothing to do except live in luxury and spend money with a shovel". Their extravagance had shopkeepers in London and Paris provide them custom their own countrymen envied.
Ships to India carried back container holds of furniture, household necessities and indulgences, clothes, shoes, boots, hats, sarees, clocks, crystal, hunting equipment, crockery, cutlery glassware and other baubles.
It wasn't always nouveau riche, this lavish display of spending, and the commissions, specifically, resulted in some masterpieces of design in architecture and jewellery, but also often comical results when maharajas dressed up in a curious mix of Indian and Western court attire.
Photographs show them draped in emeralds and diamonds and swags of pearls, chests covered with decorations, braided tunics and knee-length boots - neither oriental nor quite occidental, but splendid nonetheless.
Their patronage of design - and design houses - years after they have passed into nostalgia, has now resulted in a stunning book from the stable of Lustre Press/Roli Books, called Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India.
Written by Amin Jaffer, an old Indian hand (he is the curator of the Asian Department in London's Victoria and Albert Museum), to highlight "the extent to which [the] maharajas looked to Europe to satisfy their appetite for luxury goods", he was able to trace the shopping expeditions of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner, Maharani Sunity Devi of Cooch Behar, Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, and the profligate Punjab maharajas of Patiala, Kapurthala and Jind.
Priya Kapoor, who worked on the exhaustive captions for the images and coordinated the interface between Jaffer's text and the visual content in the book, had her task cut out for her.
"We didn't want to include anything in the book that had been bought off the shelves," she said, "we were looking specifically at commissions."
Back home, Martand Singh, the book's consulting editor, pointed her towards families and private collectors, but while it was easy enough to locate furniture, even some jewellery, and boxfuls of crockery and cutlery, it was harder to identify who had executed the commissions.
In the case of crockery and cutlery, Kapoor says, "We found the designs made for royal families in the archives departments of the luxury brands' Paris headquarters, and then the actual plates, or glasses, or forks and knives, in the palace basements in India."
The thrill of these finds was nothing compared to the rare documentation that houses like Cartier or Boucheron were able to provide - of designs especially executed for the princes. For reasons of confidentiality, a lot of the material could not be shared - "Jewellery is a sensitive issue," says Kapoor primly - but even so, it is the book's largest, and probably most engaging, section.
It was an exhausting task. First, try and view some of the most dazzling of the royal commissions, then try and retrace their specific history, look for old pictures and drawings, trace records of sales and deliveries, and finally, try and authenticate the surviving pieces, or pictures, with documentary evidence from the archives.
"In the two-and-a-half years we worked on the book," recalled Kapoor, "at least one major necklace from the Jamnagar collection was sold by Sotheby's in Geneva. But for all the pictures we collected, there was no way of telling where the jewellery, or furniture, or cars might now be. Obviously, they are part of major private collections around the world."
Such as the Holkar portraits, one of which is on the cover of the Indian edition of the book. "It took us nine months to convince the Sheikh of Qatar, who acquired a bulk of the Holkar collection from the Manikbagh Palace, Indore, to part with the image for use in the book. Obviously, that was quite a coup."
That image is also on the American edition, while in the UK, it is a piece of jewellery that has been chosen by the co-publisher for use on the jacket. The UK edition comes in a slipcase, but the Indian edition, in a first-ever experiment of its kind, is packaged in a leather valet, justifying its steep price of Rs 4,500.
Already, the first edition of the book has a print run of 10,000 copies in English, with another 10,000 ordered in German, French and Russian, and other languages under negotiation.
Eventually, of course, India's independence and the end of the Raj meant a different destiny not just for their princes but also for their possessions. Jaffer writes that few princely families could keep their treasures intact.
"As easily disposable assets, jewels were among the first possessions that princes sold under financial pressure. From the 1950s, European jewellers travelling to India were typically not selling, but acquiring precious stones from maharajas, and selling them to advantage in Europe and America."
He quotes a visit by Claude Arpels to Maharaja Martand Singh of Rewah in 1956, to buy a vast array of jewels laid out for him in the palace courtyard. Noted Arpels, the "moment was not without pathos, reflected in the eyes of His Highness who seemed to be living for a few moments in the glamorous past".
Much more was to disappear in the following decades, as palaces were ransacked of their great wealth.
Writes Jaffer, "The palaces built on a vast scale are now chiefly hotels or museums and their contents, paintings, libraries and chandeliers, cars and works of art have been in some cases sold to pay for expenses or to settle family disputes over inheritance."Others would simply view it as the passing of an era.