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Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s portrait. Photo: Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis
Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s portrait. Photo: Christophe Boisvieux/Corbis

Aakar Patel: The spoils of royalty

Why do we cling on to the idea that it is the royal that is luxurious? Real Indian luxury is not the objects, but the service

The depressing fact is that Indian luxury, meaning what has come to us from our royalty, is not functional. Those who have visited Rajasthan’s pre-European palaces will be struck by how poorly designed they are—inward-looking, cramped (a large palace will likely have many, many small rooms), and with appalling toilets. There is no sense of the ergonomic and it is luxurious only in the sense that it is ornate.

The furniture of India’s royalty is, in similar fashion, totally unusable. This is because Mughals and all, they sat cross-legged or sideways with their feet folded under them. This is why our thrones look like square cots instead of chairs. Europeans were always uncomfortable in the court, being disallowed to sit and there being no proper furniture (there is a hilarious story about how Sir Thomas Roe tries to make himself look distinguished before Jahangir by leaning against a pillar). We cannot use the stuff today though we aspire to.

So why do we cling on to the idea that it is the royal that is luxurious? The answer of course is that it is not about the luxurious as much as it is about the symbolism of social hierarchy. Pretending to be royals separates them from the great unwashed. Luxury here is to be insulated from the normal even more than luxury usually is elsewhere through the device of exclusivity. But the illusion falls away much faster here.

I think it was Aldous Huxley, visiting India in his 20s, who observed that the kings usually had Rolls Royces, but the driver was likely to have a dirty turban with which he wiped his nose.

Let’s have a look at the clothing of our royalty. Formal dress in two ancient societies, Japan and China, today is Western dress. They have discarded the traditional and their leaders wear suits and ties. Ours, on the other hand, prefer tradition and wear the Nehru jacket (or the bandhgala) which is a short coat with a buttoned-up neck, the very feature that gives the garment its local name.

But the origin of the bandhgala and why it became so popular is debatable. It was not the clothing of the Rathores or Rajputs before the modern era. But Mughal texts mention, for instance, that the suicidal Sisodia charge at Chittor in 1568 was led by horsemen wearing saffron. However, this was soft fabric, silk or cotton. The Mughals themselves, and we know this because they were the subjects of excellent and detailed portraiture, also wore soft fabrics.

Down to Wajid Ali Shah (who strangely and intriguingly exposes his left nipple in formal portraits made a year before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857) the fabric used was thin silk. In the instances it was thick, it was brocade.

It is only after an encounter with Europeans and their infantry garments, which was a coat of wool or canvas, designed for another continent’s weather and stiff enough to hold all the fancy accoutrement—epaulettes, braids, medals, sashes, etc.—that the Indian nobility adopted the Nehru jacket. They needed it to stick those gallantry baubles given to them by queen Victoria (for not resisting her).

So the native bandhgala is actually as foreign as the suit, but more contrived, with its fake martial appeal and all but impossible to wear in our weather.

There is also a functional reason why this “royal" look is still popular, especially at weddings. The thick fabric, the cut—broad and padded shoulders—and the length can hide pudgy midriffs.

It is for this reason that Gujarati movies are usually set in its western region of Kathiawar and usually in the medieval period. This allows for a display of the old values that we associate with royalty (excess, violence, needless martyrdom) and it makes chubby heroes like our Naresh Kanodia look distinguished.

Unfortunately, this has become conflated with luxury. Today, Paul Smith, usually a sensible designer who cuts excellent shirts, makes velvet bandhgalas but I don’t know anybody who wears them (except Karan Johar). They belong to the vaudeville and the classes who wear brands like Manyavar.

It is costume rather than clothing. It is a distinguishing marker, and allows for pageantry and make-believe. The Gujarati word for the fellow getting married is var-raja (groom-king).

What is truly good and great about Indian luxury is not the objects, but the service, as our hotels and airlines show. No luxury chains anywhere in the world are as good as the big three Indian ones when it comes to service. The Taj, the Oberoi and the ITC, more than the Four Seasons or the Mandarin or the Conrad, make the customer feel attended to. This is an Asian thing and the Japanese understand this too. The most expensive place I have ever stayed in (one night set us back by over 1 lakh) was a place in Kyoto called the Tawaraya Ryokan. Search for it online to see how unassuming it is. No restaurant, no bar and no pool.

But it’s about the service. Real Indian luxury, as any foreign traveller will also tell you, is about service. That is not a characteristic of our royalty, but a feature inherent to our culture.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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