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  • The King and I

    Posted On November 17, 2003

    By Karan Thapar

    I’m not a photographs man. By that I mean I don’t like spending time looking at photographs – at least not if they aren’t mine. Of course, I can spend hours staring at my own but looking at other people’s is tiresome. When I have to, I shuffle through them, silently and unthinkingly. To my eyes, be they friend or foe, they look fat when they were babies, silly when they were young, foolish when they were adolescents, moronic at their marriages and mindless on their holidays. Ugh!

    The worst part is the comment the owners expect you to make as you hand back the photographs. He or she waits for you to say something nice or at least witty. I can never think of anything. In fact it’s all I can do to suppress what I really want to say. And I suspect my feelings show. Consequently few people have offered to show their photographs a second time round.

    Now, at last, I’ve come across a set of other people’s photographs that have me riveted. In fact, I can’t stop looking at them. Some have me wide-eyed with fascination, others chortling with mirth, a few are stunning, the odd one or two poignant and there’s even one that simply makes you feel sad. But all of them are a joy to behold. And before I go any further I recommend that you see them for yourself.

    The photographs are in a big and heavy book called ‘The Unforgettable Maharajas’ sent to me by Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books, a publishing house that, in the circumstances, is not inaptly named. It’s a collection of ‘royal’ photographs spanning a century and a half of Maharajadom.

    The cover has four colourful little toddler princes in turbans and jewels resembling dolls on display. One of them looks like the future Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. If so, the pictures inside reveal how much he changed as he grew up. The first transition was to a corpulent Billy Bunter. The caption describes

    him as “fat and ungainly”. It’s not lying. Later, with his possessive hand around his favourite wife’s waist, he looks undeniably dissolute. Finally, surrounded by his liveried courtiers, he manages to seem both fop and fool. Clearly not every prince is charming.

    On the other hand Iftikhar Ali Khan of Pataudi certainly was. He cuts a fine figure in cricket whites, blazer and breeches or a shervani and pugree. Whilst Bhupinder Singh of Patiala looks quite the stud he was supposed to be. He has the martial bearing of a smart ADC – which is so much more impressive than a general! Our Amarinder clearly takes after his grandfather. And then there’s the pretty little Madhavrao Scindia, wearing the traditional three-cornered headdress of the Gwalior royals. It resembles the funny hats the Guardia Civil wear in Spain. But his smile is the captivating feature. It’s winsome and mischievous at the same time. And like the adult he was to become, the child seems to know this too!

    Sadly, not all the women are beautiful. Princesses, I know, are meant to be but not in this book. Some aren’t even well dressed. Yet a few are undoubtedly stunning. The Nizam’s Turkish wife, Dur-i-Shahyar Sultana, is like a perfectly carved if ice-cold marble statute. The Vijayanagaram Princess, who posed at midnight for Lafayette, resembles a 1930 Hollywood star, with the same porcelain complexion, wide eyes and slightly loopy looks. Rani Kanari of Kapurthala, after a visit to Balmoral, looks uncannily like Queen Victoria who, I presume, was her hostess. Whilst the Patiala Princesses, buried in their heavy ornaments, seem unquestionably tribal.

    The paradox is that fashions have changed and at times our royalty of yester year seem a little strange and forlorn. The double strip of the Chamber of Princes from 1921 no longer looks regal. They resemble durbans at the Oberoi Hotel – only a little shorter and a lot plumper! And when I look at the Baroda durbar, it reminds me of a scene from Mughal-e-Azam, whilst the Nizam’s Faluknama Palace simply seems cluttered.

    Yet this was and remains a world of colour and character. That’s what I like about it. Today, in comparison, our style is drab and horribly ordinary. Life may be more democratic and egalitarian but the proletarian ethic we labour under has made it a lot less picturesque. It’s this contrast that I find fascinating. Even irresistible.

    So, as I stare at the photographs my imagination starts to play tricks. My mind hallucinates and my head begins to swim. I wonder what I would look like with pearls and diamonds around my neck, a peacock feather aigrette in my turban and a swashbuckling sword at my waist? Would I look royal or simply ridiculous?

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