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Updated: May 21, 2014 18:10 IST

Kings and kitchens

Shonali Muthalaly
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Dining with the Maharajas: A Thousand Years of Culinary Tradition; Neha Prasada; Photographs by Ashima Narain; Roli Books, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 4000.
Dining with the Maharajas: A Thousand Years of Culinary Tradition; Neha Prasada; Photographs by Ashima Narain; Roli Books, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 4000.

Extravagance is only to be expected. Reckless, unapologetic, hedonistic extravagance. But who would have thought that Dining With the Maharajas, with its ponderous (and dare we say pretentious) velvet coat would be such a rollicking good read. After all, stories of India’s louche Royals have been doing the circuit for decades. With their made to order Baccarat Crystal, Louis Vuitton luggage and Cartier jewellery. Not louche enough for you? How about a carpet of 30 tiger skins in Tripura? No? Does a three month wedding celebration in Jodhpur impress you? The royal cook in Patiala who had 140 recipes for pulao? Not really, huh? After all, that’s what Maharajas are expected to do.

Therein lies writer Neha Prasada’s master stroke. She ferrets out wildly eccentric stories, then weaves them into the narrative in a cunningly matter-of-fact way. No matter how cynical you are about royalty, it’s hard not to be charmed by the unexpected story of King of Rampur. Famous for going to great lengths to make guests feel comfortable, he once hosted the Raja of Benares who stayed on one of the top floors of the Khas Bhag palace. Learning that he was in the habit of waking up and seeing a cow every morning, the King of Rampur ordered “for a cow to be pulled up on pulleys and taken to the room so he would not miss his daily routine.” The book is liberally peppered with stories like these, all wedged between meticulously researched details about life in the palace, ranging from royal culinary histories to the precise amount of ghee used in a kitchen. These are the nuts and bolts that hold this book together.

Stories and photos

Instead of descending into paroxysms of delight the straightforward prose follows a journalistic style, reporting without comment. While the writer does seem overawed on occasion, resulting in the inclusion of some rather bland stories from reminiscing Royals, most of the time she relies on the strength of the stories, supported by reams of data and Ashima Narain’s pictures to capture the reader’s attention.

When the stories are good, this works brilliantly. After all, most of this is fairly recent history, which makes it easier to connect with. Some of the characters in the book, descendents of the 10 royal houses chosen for this project ((Hyderabad, Jammu and Kashmir, Jodhpur, Mahmudabad, Mysore, Patiala, Rampur, Sailana, Tripura and Udaipur), are familiar faces. The data — lots of names and numbers — may not stay with you, but they do make the stories come alive.

You get the full glory of daily meals with Nawab Shuja ud Daula of Awadh and his wife only when you know they had 6 different kitchens, each with a monthly budget of Rs. 60,000. Or that the Rajas used to travel the seven seas with rations of spices, lentils and dried herbs. Admittedly, there does seem to be a cow motif on repeat here, but it has to be said: Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda, always took two cows for fresh milk when he travelled to Europe. Narain doesn’t get us pictures of the cows in question, unfortunately. But she does provide a visual tapestry to bring the stories alive. Since the book covers royal families in their natural habitats, the subjects and their backdrops are a photographer’s dream come true. The real challenge here is to extract intuitive pictures with impact. Pretty photographs, after all, are a given in settings like these. So while there are the clichéd stock pictures of grandiose Kings looking morosely into the camera, Narain also captures a host of memorable images.

The most striking portraits are of those of the younger generation. The 32 year-old Bikram Deb Burman in Tripura castle, for instance, leaning across a chair looking young and vulnerable, more like a Byronic hero than an entitled prince. Then there’s Ali Mohammad Khan from Mahmudabad in a portrait that ingeniously explores the idea of being royal in a country with no more Kings.

Currently studying at Cambridge, he stands in a field, stately in his simple kurta, pyjamas and shawl. One backdrop shows a grazing horse. In another, there’s the weathered but still awe-inspiring palace. Undeniably, all irresistible material in this age of voyeurism.

In sharp contrast to the hysterical tabloid-style reportage normally reserved for the rich and famous, this is a gentler narrative. It picks sharply contrasting royal families, debunking the myth that all privileged lives smack of a gilded sameness. In Mahmudabad, there’s the glamour of a decaying palace. You can almost relate to the candle-lit family dining table, till you notice the flash of expensive crystal, gold rimmed plates and discreetly engraved walls. On the other hand in Patiala, the Princesses play snooker in bejewelled tikkas, while the men cook on the verandah. In the dining room, the table is weighed down with heavy silver plates, fine linen and crystal bowls crammed with pink roses.

In this age of Weight Watchers, microwave meals and takeaway burgers, it’s strangely comforting to know that people still live like this. To know that in Sailana, Maharaja Vikram Singh is still measuring out salt, like his grandfather once did on a jewellers’ scale, to ensure the family recipes stay exactly the same.

This is of course, still a recipe book, even if royal antics hijacked it along the way. There’s a kitchen copy thoughtfully included, so you don’t have to try and balance the impractical 2.5 kilo book between your pots and pans. While it’s undeniably fun to own the famously secret recipes of the royals, you probably won’t cook the ones calling for cups of ghee, bowls of almonds and fistfuls of spices. However, a surprisingly large number of the recipes are actually fairly simple, and — gasp — even practical.

But then, as the book points out, royals are people too. In Rampur the princesses talk of trips to mango orchards to eat “buckets of cold mangoes washed down with milk.” In Tripura they giggle about a cook who made puddings only when he was drunk. And the present representative of the Wadiyar dynasty confesses to eating little more than fruits and steamed ragi balls on most days.

(Shonali Muthalaly is a feature writer with The Hindu in Chennai)

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