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The luxuries of a vanished world of Maharajas are explored through over 250 objects at the V&A

Next month the V&A in London presents 'Maharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts'

The Maharaja of Udaipur, who also bears the title of Maharana of Mewar, does not technically exist. Yet, before my eyes on a hot night in February, he was not only alive but seemed very princely indeed as he rode through his palace complex in an ornate landau to conduct the religious rites on the eve of the annual festival of Holi. He was performing for his subjects just as his forebears in the world’s oldest surviving dynasty had done every year since the middle of the eighth century.

Leading a long procession of horses, drummers, a marching band and servants in antediluvian military trim carrying spears, the Maharaja descended from his coach in white silk robes weighed down by jewels, an ornate knife and a sword. Protected by a colourful parasol held by a faithful retainer, he conducted prayers, scattered holy water and finally put a torch to a bonfire of straw to signify the start of the festival before hosting an open-air dinner for several hundred guests.

This night of magic was, if not quite an elaborate hoax, then certainly a piece of fantastic make-believe. For the Maharaja of Udaipur is not, in fact, real. The man who lit the bonfire was born, in December 1944, to be a maharaja. He divides his time in considerable luxury between several palaces very much as you might expect a maharaja to live, and he is treated somewhere between a king and a living god by the population of Udaipur. But, by the laws of modern India, the “maharaja” is plain Arvind Singh, no more than a common citizen of the republic with less official authority now over people who were once his subjects than the local magistrate.

By compromise and accommodation, the maharajas, the kings of the once independent states of India, survived rule by the Mughals and then the British—though Earl Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India, referred to them privately as “a bunch of nitwits”—with their titles and many of their local powers intact.

The British, of course, found it easier to run such a vast country with compliant maharajas and though they effectively downgraded them from kings to princes, they found intriguing ways to keep their sense of self-importance. Most famously, following the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the multi-gun salute was instituted as a form of protocol for the official greeting of a maharaja. The most important princes, such as the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Maharajas of Mysore, Jammu and Kashmir, and Scindia of Gwalior were given 21-gun salutes while minnows such as the Maharajas of Patna, Jawhar and Sonepur were to receive nine.

It was independence in 1947 that spelled the beginning of the end for the 550-odd maharajas. Though many of them remained immensely wealthy, they were forced to sign away all their powers and armies and in exchange received an annual privy purse and a host of bizarre privileges, among them free water and electricity, armed guards, full military honours at their funerals, immunity from legal action and the right to import goods, including whisky and brandy, free of import duties.

But in 1971, the socialist Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, swept all that away too. The privy purses and privileges were axed, the maharajas lost their titles and became commoners and in the following years they were heavily taxed and many had to sign away land and palaces to pay the bills.

At the time, the ruler of Baroda, who reinvented himself as a prominent industrialist (as plain Fatesinghrao Gaekwad), said he did not hanker after his lost privileges but complained: “How would you feel if someone tried to remove your clothes?”

Some maharajas, perhaps 100 or so of the wealthiest, flourish to this day, adapting, rather as the English aristocracy has done, by entering politics, going into business or, to take Arvind Singh as an example, by turning several of his palaces at Udaipur into hotels and museums. But many have not done so well. In the mid-1980s, the former Maharaja of Bikaner, once one of the great states with a 19-gun salute and its own camel corps, complained: “We have nothing left, no more boodle: it has been nothing but grief and heartache.”

He had been used, he explained, to throwing banquets in his rose-red marble palace with an eight-piece orchestra and 300 guests eating French food on a gold dinner service, Havana cigars and monogrammed cigarettes for the ladies. Now he and his wife are reduced to living in one room of the down-at-heel palace, eating at an old card table and patching up the walls with distemper.

The opulence that Bikaner once enjoyed was common to many other of the princely rulers. They were envied as the greatest collectors and patrons of their day, with coffers full of jewels, marble palaces, furniture of solid gold, garages crammed with Rolls Royces and, so legend has it, swimming pools that were filled with champagne to celebrate births and marriages.

Courtly art in London

Next month, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London plays host to more than 250 objects and works of art from the former royal families of Udaipur, Jodhpur, Baroda, Bahawalpur, Bikaner, Gwalior, Indore and Kapurthala. Many of the items, which date from the 18th century until the end of British rule, have never been on loan before.

Besides a host of thrones, howdahs (seats used for riding on the back of an animal), palanquins (litters), gem-encrusted weapons, court paintings and fine jewellery, one quite startling object—or, at least, the design for it which will be in the exhibition—will demonstrate just how decadent Indian princes could be and how they earned their reputation as free-wheeling playboys.

In 1882, Saddiq Muhammed Khan Abassi IV, the Nawab of Bahawalpur, ordered a silver-encrusted bed. The design—in fairness it should be said that it is not known whether it was his own fantasy or one dreamed up by his European agents—was despatched to Christofle in Paris calling for a bed of “dark wood decorated with applied sterling with gilded parts, monograms and arms, ornamented with four life-size bronze figures (of naked females) painted in flesh colour with natural hair, movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horse tails.”

Some 290 kilograms of silver was needed to decorate it. The four naked figures represented women of France, Spain, Italy and Greece, each with a different skin-tone and hair colour. Through ingenious mechanics linked to the mattress, the Nawab was able to set the figures in motion so that they fanned him while winking at him, against a 30-minute cycle of music from Gounod’s “Faust” generated by a music box built into the bed.

Another object crafted by top European jewellers and on display for the first time in Britain will be the Patiala Necklace, part of the largest single commission that Cartier in Paris ever executed. Completed in 1928 for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, it originally contained 2,930 diamonds weighing almost 1,000 carats. At about the same time, Patiala made a visit to Paris to the rival workshop of Louis Boucheron. Among his luggage were six iron chests of precious stones including numerous sapphires, rubies and pearls as well as more than 7,000 diamonds and more than 14,000 emeralds. Boucheron worked them into 149 pieces of jewellery.

What may surprise visitors to the show is the large quantity of European objects from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the maharajas, encouraged by their British masters to take up western ways, did so with relish, redesigning their palaces in the “latest” European style. Anna Jackson, deputy keeper of the Asian Collection at the V&A and the exhibition curator, says that many European luxury design manufacturers were quite literally kept solvent, particularly during the Great Depression, by orders from India. Besides the Paris jewellers—where the great “English” cricketer Maharaja “Ranji” Ranjitsinhji of Nawanagar was also a regular customer—the Birmingham firm of F & C Osler supplied inordinate quantities of glass and crystal furniture to India’s palaces and had agents based permanently in India. Spode, Royal Worcester and Louis Vuitton were hugely popular and then, as now, Rolls Royce was the ultimate status symbol. India’s roads were poor, but the cars were incorporated into ceremonial processions or frequently given as extravagant dowries or wedding presents. The fleet of the Maharajas of Mysore contained no fewer than 24 Rolls Royces and Bentleys.

In a book to accompany the exhibition, Jackson and her co-author Amin Jaffer, formerly of the Victoria & Albert Museum and now at Christie’s, explain how they stumbled across European shopping “agendas” in the royal archives at Bikaner.

In 1930, Maharaja Ganga Singh asked his staff to prepare a complete list of tradesmen in London and Paris. Items he wanted to buy included stationery and leather accessories, menu-stands and other banqueting-related material, a “weighing machine for her highness”, and tie and trouser presses. His successor, Maharaja Sadul Singh, sent a “must do” list to his British agents asking them to find soap samples in at least seven different colours, have his binoculars repaired, source bed and table linen, sanitary fittings and railings for the lake in the public park in Bikaner, and identify moulds for potato chips.

Managing change

For some ex-maharajas, though they have had to transfer ownership of treasures into tax-efficient trusts, not everything has changed for the worse. At Udaipur, Arvind Singh’s garage still boasts 20 classic cars, including four Rolls Royces.

A shrewd man who has handed over the running of four of his palaces, including the famous Lake Palace Hotel, to a hotel group, he wisely trained in hotel management in London and even washed dishes and changed linen in Chicago when he was young. He says that he devotes most of his energies to maintaining the heritage and environment of Udaipur.

He explains his strange position. “I am not a king—what does that mean?—but I am the head of a dynasty. I am the head of my clan. The connection with my people goes very deep and I have considerable responsibilities.

“Certainly, it is not always comfortable. There are still politicians and people who accuse us [maharajas] of being friends of the British and friends of Mountbatten. They haven’t forgotten or forgiven us over the years and they envy us now for keeping our heads above water.”

Amit Roy, London correspondent of The Telegraph of India, has a more dispassionate view. He says: “The vast majority of people in India do not mourn the passing of maharajas who once exercised the divine right of kings. Of the former princes, maybe around 100 have become businessmen, hoteliers or politicians and are doing well in the new India. Their former subjects still refer to them respectfully and affectionately by their old titles. But many of them have fallen on hard times. The reality is that the maharajas of yesteryear have been replaced by the new business maharajas, people like the billionaire Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, and Lakshmi Mittal.”

o “Maharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts” is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, from 10 October to 17 January 2010. It is sponsored by Ernst & Young

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The luxuries of a vanished world'