“The Last Maharajas”, an exhibition held recently in Paris, featured the costumes of the Grand Durbar from 1911 to 1947, a time when textiles were the soul of royalty. Ranvir Shah revels in the opulence of it all…

It is winter in Paris and the snow flakes have created a certain silence. The grey clouds and the grand buildings are looking forlorn in the Parisian cold. However across the Champs Elysee there are posters of the Maharaja of Jaipur painted by Laszlo, a handsome face framed by a saffron gold turban. They are announcing the exhibition of “The Last Maharajas” costumes of the Grand Durbar from 1911 to 1947 comprising the Deepak and Daksha Hutheesing collection of textiles. The show is being presented by the Foundation Pierre Berge – Yves Saint Laurent and curated by Jerome Neutres and Umang Hutheesing of the Hutheesing Foundation.

My father grew up with the effervescent Deepak Hutheesing and they are still close friends. Summer holidays at my grandparents' home in Ahmedabad brought me close to Umang Hutheesing, his son, now an aesthete at-large and patron of the arts. I have flown all the way from Chennai to be present at the opening of this exhibition and despite the jet lag, the cold and the frenzy to return to, am delighted to have experienced it first hand.

At 5, Avenue Marceau, the Foundation has a large space where they now regularly bring the textile arts of the world.. Earlier there was a Russian textiles show. Jerome Neutres, who has created the show, was the very dynamic cultural attaché at the French Embassy in India a few years ago. He made documentary films and is at present counsellor to the President of the Grand Palais in Paris.

One enters the exhibition into a small anteroom with a silver throne. Around it is a family of beautifully attired mannequins. Green walls are covered in a collage of Raj and Royalty pictures. Famous Cartier and Boucheron memorabilia of jewels made for the princes are interspersed. The dim accent lighting creates the mood. Jerome Neutres says in his curatorial note “For the last kings of India, who had given up their throne for independence, splendour and appearance mattered. At the end of the Raj, to be was to appear. The British crown left the Maharajas their titles and property, but took away the foundation of their power the right to wage war. Deprived of force, the favoured means of expression of these warrior princes, the last Maharajas cultivated luxury and competed based on the grandeur of their image. Clothing was at the heart of the social bond during this courtly period from the Delhi Durbar of 1911. This was the Durbar which brought all the noble families of India to the city, to the declaration of independence in 1947; which marked the swan song of the Maharajas' India. Splendour became the official language of the courts.”

Rich variety

This sets the tone for the main exhibition hall. As you enter, over 60 mannequins are presented with a small but select portion of the Deepak and Daksha Hutheesing collection. There are chogas (overcoats) in brocade and embroideries, abhas (worn by the Kutchi women with tie and dye and heavy zardozi work), chaniyas (brocade) skirts, shawls, vests, turbans, children’s suits, shervanis, caps and a small collection of precious purses. Standing solitary, in groups and as a tableaux in soft light and framed by mock Indian arches, the displays allow the viewer to wander about and imagine the days of glory.

As I wander the rooms I think of the women in the zenana going ‘hukam'( a call of respect for the maharanis and their juniors), the scent of rosewater and attar of jasmines in the warm winds, kohled eyes seen through the jalis and chik curtains of purdah. The sound of anklets, the rustle of heavy silks. The laughter, pealing and cascading like sunlight over a length of brocade in a burst on the all zari pallus, all encompassing, shimmering! Shenais, Sitars, songs of the nautch, carpets with chandeliers hanging over them in intimate settings. The rituals of marriage, jewellery, rubies from Burma, uncut Golconda diamonds and emeralds, the size of little grapes, light refracting through their crackled greens. Music playing on gramophones, learning to jive in the ghagra, clapping for attention, koi-hais, khus scent in the winds in the dry summers of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Sherbets, Holi, bhang, pirouetting ghagras like psychedelic dahlias opening out. The candle light, diyas and gaslight in the bed chambers reflecting the bronze, copper and silver/gold metals of the embroidery.

Shringar for women and for the men the downing of a valiance of emptiness, but for pomp, pageantry and Parisian panache. Intersection of the white ladies and Maharanis I am reminded of a scene from the famous Merchant Ivory film ‘Heat and Dust' where Madhur Jaffrey sits with her coterie in the zenana smoking a hookah and comparisons are made of the local resident's wife with that of a eunuch. The revenge of the defeated.

Later over cocktails and a Gujarati smörgåsbord of dhoklas and dahiwadas we move to another room. Here famous sketches by Cocteau and others adorn the wall. In the centre of the room is a portrait of Yves Saint Laurent looking down at the festivities. The adjoining room has the famous green damask screen studded with copper buttons from behind which the models who showed the haute couture of the firm walked into the salon, where some of the richest and fashionable women came for their own selections. Heroines, princesses, actresses, mistresses of the rich and famous. It is a room rife with history and memory. Pierre Berge, Business and life partner of Yves Saint Laurent is introduced to me later in the evening and is warm and affectionate. I remember a quote of his from the catalogue covering their joint collections which he sold at Christie's after Yves Saint Laurent passed away, “Today, the time has come to dissolve this collection. I do so without regret, without nostalgia. I have been fortunate enough to live with all these objects, pieces of furniture, sculptures, and paintings. I would now like others to have the same opportunity. I hope that everything that we have loved with so much passion finds a home with other collectors. And so goes the life of works of art: they pass from hand to hand, from house to house, from one continent to another. That is their destiny. Their only purpose is to be admired, and loved. Never mind by whom. I will be proud – yes, proud – if some find a place among other masterpieces. Whatever the case, I will be particularly happy if one day, a long time from now, when looking at one of these works, a collector can say when talking about Yves Saint Laurent and I: “They were not mistaken”.

This is very true in the way he continues through helping organise shows like this...Today in the age of consumerism, world brands that have indeed flattened the world and its aesthetics to a statistical mean of taste and have created an enormous sameness.

Rare dedication

To find that collectors like the Hutheesing Family have the courage and enthusiasm to build such a collection is in itself a triumph for the arts. One may make noises about being elitist in a country like ours, but while it maybe the source base what it does when a collection is shared is that it opens it up to the world and the uninitiated public and community at large. A social and historical context is understood, art history and the aesthetics of textiles comprehended and a chance for many to step into the past and almost touch its intangible romance.

So much of cultural history in terms of heritage is lost daily in the name of globalisation, modernisation and the tsunamis of Western taste. Hutheesing's foresight to save, preserve and share their collection is a magnificent act of generosity for society. Other private collectors — and there are many — must learn from this.

A dizzying collection

The Hutheesing family had ancestors who traded carved wooden facades and furniture for Tiffany’s. Earlier, a Hutheesing grandmother helped finance wars against the Moghuls and the most recent was a Hutheesing granduncle of Umang’s who was married to Nehru’s sister – Krishna.

Umang Hutheesing is known in Ahmedabad through his various activities in the sphere of culture and heritage. He runs the Hutheesing Foundation and the Hutheesingh Art Centre. His haveli, a reconstruction of his family's ancestral home in the middle of Ahmedabad is a must-see. Here a collection of antiques, textiles, paintings and furniture coalesce to form an exciting new dynamic. Bright colours reflect the purples and pinks of the textiles. The effect can be dizzying and electrifying at the same time. Here Umang holds his darbars – dinners for the rich and famous. From politicians to princes, all have passed through this fantastical folly of a haveli, part Rajasthan, part Versace.

Umang himself uses his privileged position to lobby for heritage and writes about it. He is networked internationally having had Thanksgiving dinner with the Reza Pahlavis (Iran’s ex Royal family) to having a party thrown for him by Oscar de la Renta. Yet with his familiy’s background he perseveres in the fine qualities of noblesse oblige with several charities and carries on the work his ancestors did. He continues to add to his parents’ textile collection and as he says in his note, “The textile industry has long been the backbone of India's economy and the mother of its industrial development. It remains one of the largest textile – and garment-producing nations in the world. Contemporary fashion houses across the globe continue to come here for their materials, from indigo denim for jeans to fine cotton for shirtings. From the Indus Valley to the modern nation, this is India's five thousand years of contribution and prominence in the world of textiles, garments and fashion. As India's first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, rightly commented. “The history of India may well be written with textiles as the leading motif”.

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