Hemlata Rajye, the erstwhile Maharani of Jodhpur, on the romance of arranged marriages, the cuisine of her realm and being a royal in changing times
We're granted an audience with Maharani Hemlata Rajye from Jodhpur after a polite, but firm, string of conditions. The ‘Maharani's here for a food festival, but doesn't want to talk about just food'. ‘The Maharani will see us for 20 minutes'. And the ‘Maharani will meet us in her suite'.
By the time we're ushered in, we're prepared for a royal tantrum so it's a relief to see her smiling, perched gracefully on a couch in a picture-perfect setting. As it turns out, we sighed in relief too soon. She turns wearily to the hotel PR and says she's tired, so can they please cancel her next interview.
We twiddle our thumbs nervously, wondering if beefy guards in kohl and six packs are going to appear from behind the curtains and wrestle us to the ground. (Clearly the result of a diet of too many Amar Chitra Katha comics as we were growing up.) It doesn't help that our research threw up a story of sword fights in a five-star lobby during her ‘wild wedding celebrations' when she married the erstwhile Maharaja of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh II.
However, she turns out to be perfectly charming, if rather private in the manner of old-school royals. And she denies there was ever a sword fight. “No, no,” she says, looking faintly horrified. “People say whatever they want on the Internet!” The rest of the fabled story, however, she smiles, is true. She did meet the Maharaja via a very traditional arranged marriage set up. “He was in Oxford, and they sent him my picture.” When they met, they didn't ‘click' and it was only after two more meetings that they agreed to get married.
“The arranged marriage is a good custom,” she says. “We exchange horoscopes and photographs. The alliance is taken forward only if they match. It's a more dignified way. If they don't like your picture they can always just say the horoscopes didn't match. It's so much more sensitive.” She adds that her son, Yuvraj Shivraj Singh, who was in the news for his dramatic accident during a game of polo in 2005, had an arranged marriage too. “I was 21 when I got married, the same age as my daughter-in-law was.”
Since Gaj Singh has been focusing on tourism, converting his palaces — most notably Umaid Bhavan — into hotels and the Mehrangarh Fort into a museum, besides his role as the governing council for the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Hemlata Rajye does a considerable amount of work to promote the culture of Rajasthan. In fact it's a Jodhpur food festival at The Park hotel that's brought her to Chennai, heading a team of cooks.
“The food is very authentic, very simple and what we'll be cooking here is what we serve at home,” she says, adding that she's travelling with a huge recipe book from the Mehrangarh Fort. “When I do something I want to do it with great style… We signed up with a hotel because — let's be honest — that's the only way we can popularise this food today. We need professionals.”
Despite her staff of 300 loyal retainers at the palace, many of whom have been with the family for two or three generations, Hemlata Rajye plays down the glamour of being royalty. “I'm a proud housewife,” she states, adding “I got married after Independence. Things changed. The lifestyle changed.” However, she insists, “Traditions never change. They're always there and will continue. It's about having the right attitude. It doesn't require a lot of money. It's a mindset.”
(The Jodhpuri Festival is on for dinner at 601, The Park, till April 21. Call 4267 6000 for reservations.)