The Taste With Vir: India’s princely tradition works best as a fairytale

By some co-incidence I ended up staying at Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace just after I had finished reading John Zubrzycki’s The House of Jaipur, an exhaustive account of the history of the royal family of Jaipur, which does not shy away from detailing the family’s many current legal and financial disputes. And when I returned to Delhi, I reread Quentin Crewe’s The Last Maharaja, a biography of Sawai Man Singh II which came out in 1985, apparently with the blessings of at least part of the Jaipur royal family.

The selling point of the Rambagh as a luxury hotel is that it gives you a glimpse of what life in princely India must have been like. The fluctuating fortunes of that hotel remind us how much it costs to keep that kind of show on the road. The Rambagh is now a Taj Hotel, run to exceptional standards, but it only retains its allure because the Taj spends millions on staff and regular refurbishment. 

 

Unlike many other palaces, the Rambagh has no ancient history — a trait it shares with Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan. There has been a structure on that site for ages but it never amounted to much more than a hunting lodge. The palace, as we now know it, is a 1920s phenomenon designed mainly by Brits. It was constructed by Sawai Man Singh, who was famously Westernised, to serve as a sort of Rajput Downton Abbey. The dining room (lovingly renovated by the Taj and still in use) is straight out of a European chateau or palazzo or even, an English country house. When Sawai Man Singh lived there, you had to wear white tie and tails for dinner.

In these more egalitarian times, most people have probably forgotten how glamorous the Jaipur royal family was when Sawai Man Singh (Jai to his friends) and his third wife Gayatri Davi (Ayesha to her friends) were alive. Unlike most Indian royals, Jai was on first name terms with the British royal family. When Prince Philip visited Jaipur for Holi, he mingled easily with others at the palace and had his face rubbed with gulal by everyone who attended the festivities. In his introduction to Quentin Crewe’s book, Philip wrote, “I have met many people who could be described as charming but few, if any, had Jai’s special brand of kindly charm and gentleness of character.”

Maharaja Man Singh II and Maharani Gayatri Devi
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Wikimedia Commons
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Jai and Ayesha spent nearly half the year abroad (both before and after independence) and in 1970, just before Indira Gandhi stripped the princes of their titles, he died on a polo field in England when he was still in his fifties.

The glamour of the Jaipur family survived his death largely because Gayatri Devi (Ayesha) remained a well-known figure in global jet set circles and maintained a residence in England. Till her death in 2009 her’s was a name to drop in British aristocratic circles.

I have no idea if the Jaipurs did really manage to transfer vast portions of their considerable fortune abroad as critics of the family alleged during the Emergency (when Gayatri Devi was unjustly arrested) but there is little doubt that, without access to the substantial wealth of ruling princes, they would never have been able to maintain the Rambagh in a suitable style.

Recognising that times had changed, Jai turned the Rambagh into a hotel. According to Zubrzycki, the first that Ayesha heard of it was at a party hosted by the Oberois in 1956. Jai knew the Oberois and the original plan was that they would run the hotel. That didn’t work out and the Jaipurs ran it themselves — very badly. They spent no money on the property and perhaps, as a consequence, it never turned a profit. Just before he died, Jai asked the Taj (then just a single hotel in Mumbai, not the chain it is today) to take it over and it has been a Taj hotel ever since (the Jaipur family is represented in the management by two of Jai’s sons).

Even then, the Taj ran it like a circuit house. I stayed there as a teenager in the mid Seventies and was not impressed. Things improved somewhat in the Eighties but the hotel only returned to glory in 2003/4 when crores were spent on a massive refurbishment programme. Today, it has the sparkle and glamour that the Rambagh must have had before 1947 in the heyday of Princely India.

I never met Jai but I sometimes bumped into Gayatri Devi. In 1977, when A Princess Remembers, her autobiography, came out, I interviewed her in a small suite at the Mumbai Taj where, rather than promote the book, she complained about the many mistakes that Santha Rama Rau who actually wrote the text, had made. In 1987, when I met her at the Rambagh and then at Lilly Pool, her residence, she told me to urge all my readers not to buy the book. (Some problem with the royalties, I think.)

A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur

A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur
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Amazon.in
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She could be imperious. During the 1989 election, two members of the Sunday magazine team (I was then the editor) went up to her at the Rambagh and said “Mrs Singh, we are from Sunday and we wondered if you would like to comment on the election….” She looked right through them as though they were invisible. (My guess is that she was not thrilled at being addressed as Mrs. Singh.)

But she also had impeccable manners. I was once on a flight from Mumbai to Delhi. When we landed, everyone got into their own cars and drove away. Except for one elderly lady who kept looking impatiently at the road, waiting for her car to drive up — this was before mobile phones caught on. I was going to offer the lady a ride anyway but when I got closer, I realized to my surprise, that it was Gayatri Devi.

I re-introduced myself and gave her a ride. She was charming and afterwards wrote me a letter of thanks adding, at the end, “and please tell everyone not to buy A Princess Remembers.”

Her step-son Col. Bhawani Singh, who became the new maharaja was a much less complicated person, a war hero with a bluff, straight forward manner. He was quite happy to be called Col. Singh. His wife Padmini who is now the Rajmata is probably the nicest member of the Jaipur family in centuries: warm and approachable, but smart and witty at the same time.

Bhawani Singh and his family did not have much to do with the Rambagh which his step-brothers controlled and Gayatri Devi who lived in Lilly Pool, a small house on the grounds of the Rambagh had a tense relationship with some of her relatives. As Zubrzycki points out, the gate between Lilly Pool and the Rambagh was locked after a dispute and after Gayatri Devi died, ownership of the property was contested.

In every sense that matters, the age of the maharajas is over. Even in the West, they are now seen as anachronisms from a bygone era (like Yugoslav royalty, perhaps) rather than serious glamour figures. Some maharajas have renewed their hold on their old states by joining politics but with each passing generation the bond between former ruler and former subjects weakens further.

And while I believe that Mrs. Gandhi treated the maharajas very unfairly, going back on guarantees offered by the Indian state only so that she could make a populist point, I don’t believe (as some maharajas now claim) that most of princely India was ever well-administered and responsive to the needs of the people.

In fact, India’s princely tradition works best as a fantasy, a fairy tale. That is how A Princess Remembers is written and that is why despite Gayatri Devi’s fulminations, it continues to sell decades after it was first published.

I stayed in the Gayatri Devi suite at the Rambagh this time. This is designed as a tribute to her legend (she probably lived in what is now the Maharani suite) and it was easy, staying there, to fall under the spell of the fairy tale. I am not sure the service or the food were as good when the Rambagh was a royal palace but, these days they are faultless.

And who knows what things were really like in that era? What was the reality behind those fairy tales? In his biography, Quentin Crewe admits about Jai, “his taste was a shade chromium perhaps but by no means as vulgar as that of the majority of his fellow Princes”. Adds Crewe, “everyone who knew Jai, always mentions his stinginess.” And Sawai Man Singh’s romance with Gayatri Devi began when she was just 13 and he was a much older man with two wives tucked away and a rumoured friendship with her mother. As an apologetic Crewe offers:“to European readers it may seem strange that a man who would never lack female companionship should take an interest in a thirteen-year-old-girl. It must be remembered that in India, over the centuries, it was perfectly normal.”

Well, no. Actually it wasn’t. But why let the facts get in the way of a fairy tale? Today’s Rambagh is a monument to that fairy tale. And a very lovely monument it is too.

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