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When Coco Chanel hit our shores

When Coco Chanel hit our shores
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First Published: Sat, Mar 31 2007. 12 16 AM IST

Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala
Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala
Updated: Sat, Mar 31 2007. 12 16 AM IST
Remember the famous dining-table train of Gwalior? A giant, elliptical railway track resting on a 20-seater table. A miniature train made of glass and radiant silver stands on one of its edges. Its gleaming carriages are gently loaded with plates of eatables and glass beakers filled with spirits. The first family of Gwalior, that of Maharaja Jayaji Raja Scindia, and their guests take the seats ascribed to them. The engine is propelled and it begins to circulate. As soon as a hand reaches out for any of the contents, the train stops, because the lining of the silver carriages is sensitized to do so.
Made by Armstrong Whitworth & Co. of London in the early 20th century for the maharaja, this is one of those antiquated marvels from that royal era featured in Amin Jaffer’s book, Made for Maharajas: A Design Diary of Princely India. Some of the other design paraphernalia featured in this book—encased in a flimsy, but attractive tangerine-coloured cardboard mini chest—make you gasp and guffaw at the same time.
A curator in the Asian department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Jaffer chronicles how easy it was for the East India Company to entice the rulers of India’s princely states with Europe’s ingenuity for aesthetic extravagance. Thereafter, it wasn’t much of a struggle for the British, who arrived in India as traders, to build an empire. They first needed to keep the local king happy with European jewellery, cars, and fantasy toys.
Jaffer’s intention, of course, is not to refresh our memory about the political cowardice of our erstwhile maharajas, but to document their lesser-known eccentricities. His writing, backed by rigorous research, is filled with minor historical facts—“So extravagant were the nawabs of Oudh that Lucknow became a magnet for anyone in possession of European novelties. An example is found in clockmaster Victor Malliardet, who obtained leave from the East India Company to travel to Lucknow in 1796 in order to sell Nawab Asaf-ud-daula £4,000 worth of automata, among them ‘a young lady playing the harpsichord, also a small snuffbox from which a little bird would spring up, give several tones and shut himself up again in the box’.” If you do the math, in today’s terms, £4,000 works out to Rs3,40,000.
Names such as Baccarat, Boucheron, Coco Chanel, Cartier and Louis Vuitton spring up casually in the book. Jaffer also reproduces bills of lavish purchases—£3,000 (Rs2,55,000) shoes for the Maharaja of Bikaner, a £200 (Rs17,000) dinner service for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar and jewellery bills going into thousands of pounds. Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala was one of the greatest patrons of western jewellers. The famous Patiala necklace designed by Cartier was five-stranded, mounted with 2,930 diamonds and had a pendant of a 234-carat de Beers diamond.
The book also contains rare images taken by photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vandyk, documenting another aspect of royal luxury—the obsession with western portraiture and, later, photography. Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda is captured by Cartier-Bresson in 1948, wearing her jewellery for her husband’s birthday celebrations. Her necklace is made of two Brazilian diamonds, the 128.8-carat Star of the South and the 78.53-carat English Dresden.
A startling example of how the royals could have their wildest of fantasies delivered at their doorsteps is the bed of Nawab Muhammad Bahawal Khan Abbasi V of Bawalpur. Made of rosewood, it was encrusted with silver. Four nude female figures made of bronze, intended to represent women of France, Spain, Italy and Greece, stood on four corners of the bed. Through ingenious mechanics, they were capable of winking, and waving fans and fly whisks in their hands. The nawab, known to be reclusive, commissioned this bed to Christofle, of London, in 1882. For those unfamiliar with nawabi excess, this is gauche fantasy, made exotic by time.
By collating these images and the quirky stories behind them, Jaffer creates a compendium that only seasoned collectors would be proud to own.
Through the book, he also defines for us the very nature of exotica. Why, long after the British lost their imperial powers, the East became an imaginary, alluring land of kitsch for the West, one that everyone aspired to experience. When you take something out of its original setting, it becomes all the more desirable; in other words, exotic. Four naked European women winking and waving at you while you lie on your bed—frightening thought, but for most Indian men, that’s probably exotic.
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First Published: Sat, Mar 31 2007. 12 16 AM IST
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