Royalty thrives because of nostalgia. And India is richer for it
An engineering graduate, fresh
out of college and working for a
multinational in Mumbai, was
online with a senior manager in
the United States. It was 10 pm
here and he wanted to go home,
he told the American.
This is the conversation, ver-
Friend: Just missed the shuttle
from office and I need to go home since it’s difficult getting
a cab from here. Could we talk tomorrow?
American: Sure. But don’t wait for a cab, why don’t you
call for an elephant? Aren’t they on hire?
Friend: Pardon, me?
American: Elephant. Why don’t you call for an elephant?
To my friend’s credit, he could choke down his laughter
and answer the question, earnestly.
Friend: No, I’d rather take a cab because elephants are
slower and it’ll take forever to get home. Actually, my dad
— who, by the way, is one of the Maharajas of Mumbai —
wanted to send his sedan, but I’m dead against taking help
from him. We’ve had a situation (
he used the Americanism
for good measure
) and I don’t want the inheritance.
The American, an engineer as well, was sincere in his
question, and had no idea my friend was joking. In fact, the
chap confessed that he had often wondered whether my
friend had any royal connections.
As surreal as the conversation may sound, it isn’t really
difficult to understand the rationale behind the thought.
A British woman who has been living in India for over 45
years had told me that the Americans, unlike the British,
who have a shared history with us since the 1600s, do not
understand the idea of India. And they don’t particularly
“It stems from a lack of interest in a culture that they can-
not relate to and so they try to establish a connect with
what they think India is — maharajas, elephants, snake
charmers and palaces. It’s also, I think, a nicer vision of
India, a distancing from poverty and the unwashed mass-
es,” said Mrs B, now in her early seventies. “When I got
married and came to Bombay, I did feel like a princess
because of the quality of life here. We never had servants in
England; here I was waited upon in a huge house enclosed
by rose gardens, lawns and a kitchen garden. My great-
grandfather was employed by the East India Company and
for the first time, it made me feel close to a person I had
never seen. It was strange, but I felt nostalgic for a period
of Indian history I had only read about — princely India.”
Just before Partition, there were over 500 princely states
— fabulous, flamboyant jewels in the British Empire’s
crown. After Independence, between 1948 and 1950 the
princely states grudgingly acceded to India. The rulers
were, however, recognized by the Constitution of India as
maharajas. Then, December 28, 1971, in an amendment to
the Constitution, it was ruled that, ‘The Prince, Chief or
other person shall cease to be recognized as such ruler or
the successor of such ruler.’ And privy purses were abol-
In effect, they had become commoners. So why is it that
Indian royals still have a peculiar hold on popular culture?
And why haven’t they just faded away into a sepia mono-
The fact is, 41 years later, the erstwhile rulers still capti-
vate India. Their ‘subjects’ still bow and scrape and call
, and when they
do the rounds of swish parties in metropolitan India, they
Rajasthani artisans play music at the City Palace in Jaipur, Rajasthan.
The palace was built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh
VIJAY MATHUR/REU TERS
go as his/her highness. They represent a way of life that has
long disappeared and will never return because it has no
sanction. It is a make-believe, a fancy dress party of turbans
with emerald and diamond pins and chiffons with pearls,
but it courts envy. And so royalty thrives.
Here’s an excerpt from the
, August 8: ‘ The
Begum is wearing her
. The three-piece ensemble is
made up of a
rust and gold tissue, which contrasts subtly with the soft
at the hem. The ensemble was made for the
Begum Sajida Sultan of Bhopal, who wore it for her wed-
ding in 1939.’
The Begum here is actress Sharmila Tagore, married to
the Nawab of Pataudi, Mansur Ali Khan, and the reference
point is Kareena Kapoor’s wedding outfit. The story goes
on to say that the heirloom
Sharmila wore then
will be incorporated into Bebo’s outfit. ‘As the wedding will
take place at Saif’s ancestral
in Pataudi, it will be fit-
ting for Kareena to wear something that reflects the royal
house’s heritage and history.’
Royalty thrives because there
is an unabashed voyeurism
into that privileged life and a
grudging respect for their lega-
Most of the princely states
had exemplary administration
and civil works, and were cen-
ters of education and learning.
Jaipur, Rajasthan, which
showcases India to the world,
has a 300-year-old town planning design, where roads had
prescribed widths, and houses had regulation heights —
the entire city laid out in grid pattern. Some of the city’s
premier schools and colleges were established by Gayatri
Devi, married into the royal family of Jaipur. She was
instrumental in getting many Rajasthani women out of
, home and hearth and into school.
In Kolhapur, Maharashtra, which cannot corner even a
fraction of Jaipur’s fame, lives the descendent of Shivaji.
Showing me around his sprawling and still stunning Indo-
Saracenic palace, he says he begins each day by seeking the
blessings of two people: His father Chhatrapati Shahuji
Maharaj and his ancestor Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj.
Known as the Maharaj Kumar of Kolhapur, he is the 16th
direct descendant of Shivaji.
His great-great grandfather, Shahu Maharaj, encouraged
education in his state, subsidizing it for the poor and girls.
He encouraged widow remarriage and stopped child mar-
riages. He also enabled employment schemes for the poor
and patronized the reformist Arya Samaj.
In Jodhpur, Rajasthan, the titular head — Gaj Singh’s
father — built the Umaid Bhavan palace, the world’s largest
private residence, as a work-for-food program to provide
employment to more than 3,000 artisans during a famine.
Royalty thrives because once the princely states merged
with the Union, many of the titular heads stood for elec-
tions and joined active politics — Gwalior, Jodhpur,
Tripura, Kochi, Kolhapur, Jaipur, among others. All of
them won the elections and someone like Gayatri Devi still
holds the Guinness Record for winning an election by the
highest percentage of votes polled.
Royalty thrives because of nostalgia. A yearning for a past
that you may or may not have experienced. My mother was
born in the erstwhile state of Cooch Behar in West Bengal
— the late Maharani of Jaipur Gayatri Devi’s paternal
home. She remembers a childhood (pre-1947) when
Gayatri Devi and her sisters dressed in white shirts and
breeches would go riding by a lake called Sagar Dighi.
Every morning, at sunrise, the maharaja’s royal band
would strike up a tune to wake the royal household, loud
enough to wake much of the citizenry. Cooch Behar was
beautiful, my mother says.
“Compared to Calcutta during the same period, Cooch
Behar was clean, it looked prosperous and I don’t remem-
ber seeing a single beggar,” she says.
She visited Cooch Behar a couple of years ago and wasn’t
surprised to see how rundown it was. The state went to
seed after Partition, one of the reasons being the influx of
refugees from then East Pakistan and it has never recov-
On the flipside, most of the royal families were loyal to
the British, and very few took part in the 1857 War of
Princely India is part of our history
as much as democracy and elections,
an active judiciary, and now the Right
to Information Act. It may not define
who we are, but it is a part of the sym-
bol of what the world recognizes us to
It is more acceptable than the other Rajas — 2G’s
Andimuthu or Raja Bhaiya, a Samajwadi Party state legis-
lator and the ‘ruler’ of Kunda district in Uttar Pradesh, who
has 30 criminal offences against him including murder. It
is more acceptable than dynastic politics. Or the
Communist ‘rulers’ of West Bengal.
The idea of India is documented by its 4,500-year-old
history and as much as its tryst with freedom, was its tryst
with princely states. And we are the richer for it.
Meanwhile, my friend, who did not call for an elephant to
take him home, has just left for the US to pursue a PhD. In
his suitcase, he showed me, is something he bought for
close to Rs 3,000 — a genuine, if slightly worn out snake
“That’s for when they want to know what my father does,”
Swarupa Dutt is Deputy Managing Editor, Rediff.com
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