India has been viewed with a lot of awe and amazement by the entire world for myriad reasons. The colours, the sights, the smells, the cuisine – presented in a million different forms – have enthralled connoisseurs from the time the first set of travelers set foot on this ancient land.
Everything about India, right from its spiritual mooring to its 5000-year-old history has caught the imagination of people in unusual ways – from astonishment to appreciation, evoking surprise, shock, curiosity and wonderment, all at the same time.
But most of all, India has been considered the land of maharajahs, elephants, and snake-charmers; all of which is absolutely true.
Indian Royalty, by the extent and value of treasures they have possessed, by the sheer show of their opulence, by the grandiose manner in which they have lived, have been the subject of interest not just of the common folk, but essentially of luxury brand makers and service providers.
Archives mention that Indian queens developed a fondness for western clothes and started ordering for their trousseau in Europe by the late Nineteenth century, an outcome of western education entering the royal households.
An inclination towards the western life – be it in clothes, other items of use or travelling to Europe, brought in integration with the international society for the royalty.
The kings and queens always had a deep fondness for jewellery. Both royal men and women wore priceless, precious pieces all over their personage, starting from rare gems encrusted in their crowns down to expensive trinkets that adorned their feet.
With their leaning towards appearing modern and to portray their western sensibilities, the Indian royalty began commissioning renowned designers in Europe to create bespoke items of jewellery.
Notable among these is the iconic “Patiala Necklace,” – the subject of several literary works and documentaries. In 1928 Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, ordered the House of Cartier to create the magnificent necklace that is set with 2930 diamonds, including a jaw-droppingly large ‘De Beers’ diamond weighing 234.65 carats as the centerpiece, and several Burmese rubies. The Patiala Necklace is still considered the most expensive piece of jewellery in the world.
The Maharaja had Cartier make jewellery for his queen Rani Yashoda Devi, who would often be seen wearing beautiful necklaces with rubies, pearls, and diamonds. The Maharaja also instructed Maison Boucheron to design and create jewellery for him.
In 1928 again, one day the King brought along a casket full of stones – a mind-boggling 566 carats of diamonds and 7800 carats of emerald – and commissioned Boucheron to make 149 designs for him.
The royal couple was known to travel to London, to Vandyk Studios, to get their portraits done. At one time, the Maharaja asked Vandyk to set up a studio at his palace in Patiala.
Indira Devi, the Maharani of Cooch Behar which was considered as one of the most westernized royal houses of the time, had a fetish for shoes. Salvatore Ferragamo, the legendary Italian shoe designer, reveals in his Autobiography about the time the Queen ordered more than a hundred pairs of shoes. She even sent him pearls and diamonds from her collection to create a special pair.
Maharani Sita Devi of Kapurthala, known as the ‘Pearl of India’ and the much fabled Maharani Gayatri Devi of Gwalior were much ahead of their time. Both the queens were trendsetters and heralded as fashion icons; with magazines like Vogue and well-known photographers like Andre Durst, Man Ray and Cecil Beaton clambering to get their time and attention.
Sita Devi of Kapurthala was also the fashion muse for the famous couturier Elsa Schiaparelli, who was so enchanted by the Princess’s style that she once created all the gowns in her 1935 collection as saris. The queen’s favourite designer was Mainbocher – the couturier who made the wedding dress for Wallis Simpson’s marriage with Duke of Windsor.
Sita Devi would often be seen in chiffon saris over which she would don fur coats designed by Mainbocher and custom-made jewellery specially made for her by Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and other notable jewellers.
Maharani Gayatri Devi, with her refined sartorial sense, natural beauty, and inherent grace, was regarded as one of the most beautiful women in the world by the czars of fashion and style internationally. Among her other interests was her love for wheels so much that she is credited for importing the first Mercedes-Benz W126 to India.
The Maharaja of Mysore was the proud owner of 24 Bentleys and Rolls-Royce. Such was the demand for luxury cars in regal India that 800 Rolls-Royce were delivered to the country between 1903 and 1945.
There is a rather delectable lore told around the pride of Indian Royalty and how sometimes the international luxury brand makers failed to recognize the might, purchasing power and opulence of this set. The story goes that the Maharaja of Alwar was insulted at a Rolls Royce showroom during one of his foreign travels. The King felt so affronted that to teach the car maker a lasting lesson, he bought seven Rolls-Royce and employed them to cart his city’s municipal waste. There couldn’t have been a greater punishment and tarnishing of the image of a deluxe brand.
Being an Indian royal was all about the finer things in life, cultured discernment and a predilection for arts, letters, and fashion. The exposure the royal class had to the West, cultivated in them love for western music and arts.
Notably, Rani Vijaya Devi, the Thakurani of Kotda-Sangani, was not only adept at Carnatic music and dance but was also a Piano playing virtuoso; so much that she won a fellowship at the Trinity College of Music, London. As recent as 1941, the Thakurani went on to attend the Juilliard School of Music in New York. She became the founder and president of the International Music and Arts Society.
Just as the West was enamoured by the wonders of India and Asia, the Royals from India were adapting to the western culture with élan. Not only in music, arts, fashion, and jewellery, the imperialists in India were adopting a western lifestyle in their daily life too.
The queens would go hunting wearing breeches; the royalty began the use of chairs and table for dining and started to eat in the finest porcelain and china from the illustrious makers in Europe.
Their tastes were so refined that they were buying mirrors in Venice, porcelain in Dresden; besides clothes and jewellery in Paris and other style-bearing ports in Europe.
The Royal, Sayajirao III was such a big and regular client of Henry Poole & Co., the notable Savile Row Suit maker, that he awarded the company a royal warrant.
The European houses of fashion and style returned the love and adulation by creating works inspired by India. For instance, in the world of fragrance, Maison Boucheron proclaimed its love for the palaces and royal gardens of Jaipur by creating the eponymous perfume Boucheron Jaipur.
Similarly, Guerlain introduced Shalimar, as an ode to the richly scented royal garden in Kashmir that Emperor Shah Jahan built for Mumtaz Mahal. While Un Jardin Apres la Mousson – the third fragrance in the Hermès Jardin series – evokes the romanticism and magic of monsoon in God’s own country Kerala.
When the Indian Royalty travelled abroad, they travelled in style. Even their luggage planning was a big affair. Bespoke, monogrammed luggage with the Royal family’s insignia, were specially crafted out of finest leather by the likes of Louis Vuitton.
During my Oberoi years, I recall conceptualizing and shooting for the set of Guest postcards we were developing as hotel merchandize. For one of the postcards, we wanted to show our smart Bell boy pushing a superbly buffed trolley stacked with Louis Vuitton suitcases.
We approached Tikka Shatrujit Singh, the scion of the Royal family of Kapurthala in Punjab, who graciously loaned to us his family heirloom luggage for the shoot. The large to very large pieces were works of art, beautifully created by the House of LV for the King in the 19th and 20th centuries.