A Spanish prince in Madras

The Barbican, a house in Madras that Queen Mother Fredrica, her daughter Princess Irene, and the royal grandchildren visited.  

The parkland surrounding Spain’s Zarzuela Palace is like an enchanted forest — green and soothing, beautifully manicured and landscaped. Flowers bloom, birds chirrup and deer scamper gracefully between the trees. But the palace itself appears to be a modest affair if one is being received in an area reserved for minor audiences.

A group of Indian journalists is ushered into the presence of His Royal Highness, Felipe, Prince of Asturias, heir to the Spanish throne. Baptised Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos (of all saints) of Bourbon and Greece, the Prince — a tall, bearded, elegant figure — bears these names lightly and is both relaxed and charming. Not so lightly, perhaps. For, while the men in the group notice his superbly cut clothes, the women’s eyes zero in on his bitten-down fingernails. A brooder perhaps, certainly an anxious soul.

The monarchy is currently in the doghouse in Spain and the Prince is the only hope of reviving an institution that was once held in high esteem. In 1981, his father King Juan Carlos saved the country’s democracy from a right-wing coup when he appeared on television in full military regalia to defend the country’s constitution and order the putschists back to barracks. But a great deal has changed since then and the Royal family has blotted its copybook several times over.

The King went on a very expensive and, to many offensive, elephant hunting trip in Botswana at a time when the country is in the grip of severe economic hardship. He fell and broke his hip and had to be invalided out. The Spanish chapter of the Wildlife Fund for Nature voted massively to fire him from the role of honorary chairman. His dalliances are reportedly legion. The king’s son-in-law has brought dishonour upon the family as he stands trial for graft and embezzlement. Polls indicate there is growing support for the abdication of the King in favour of his mild-mannered affable son.

Political pundits openly say that with a thoroughly discredited political class, the only hope of reviving Spain’s failing democracy is Felipe. The 45-year-old Prince has married a hugely popular former television journalist, a once-divorced commoner. He studied in Canada and earned a Masters’ in Diplomacy from Washington’s Georgetown University. He has kept away from scandal and is seen as a measured and responsible father of two who thinks hard and intelligently before opening his mouth.

His idea of the role of the monarchy in Spanish affairs is “Primarily to be a unifying, stabilising force. The monarchy can be something of a brand ambassador for Spain and can certainly help in promoting trade, commerce and exports. I visited India last year and several businessmen accompanied me during that trip. So our role is to represent the best of what Spain has to offer. I love India and have many very close ties going back to my early childhood. So India is a country I visit with a lot of excitement and delight,” he says. “I remember going there with my cousins and we always travelled incognito because these were private visits.”

And there is a very definite link, especially with Chennai that goes back to Prince Felipe’s maternal grandmother and aunt, Queen Frederica of Greece, and her daughter Princess Irene.

It all began when Queen Mother Frederica of Greece met the Advaita scholar Dr. T.M.P. Mahadevan during an international conference on world religions in June 1966 in Athens. A year later she would flee into exile following a botched attempt by her son King Constantine to oust the Greek government. Frederica said she came under the influence of Advaita because of her previous study of physics. Her understanding that there was just one source of all energy led her to accept non-dualism as a philosophy. She was influenced by the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharishi and also became a disciple of Jagadguru Chandrasekharendra Saraswati Swamigal. She was brought up partly in Vienna and partly in England and taught by an English governess. An excellent student, her English was flawless.

The Queen Mother’s mentor, T.M.P Mahadevan, in an article titled ‘Meeting with Perfection’, says: “The Queen-Mother and the Princess expressed a wish to meet His Holiness Sri Sankaracharya of Kanchi on their next visit to India…They came to India in November-December 1966, and met His Holiness…in Kalahasti on the 4th and 5th of December, 1966. Her Majesty Queen Frederica, and Her Royal Highness Princess Irene, came as seekers of truth; and they thought it supremely worthwhile to undertake this long journey and were richly rewarded.”

One person who remembers “the Spanish Royals” well is the renowned Indian classical dancer Alarmel Valli. “This was in the days when Kilpauk was an oasis of calm and greenery. My grandfather Arunachalam Mudaliar bought the 10-acre campus and there were three old houses there, with the biggest called Macdala. From the papers I have seen, the estate originally belonged to a certain Mr. Evelyn Oakshott-Robinson and he had rented out the big house to the then chief justice of the Madras High Court, Justice Coutts-Trotter. Smaller houses were then built around this big house and one of them was called Barbican, built around 1830 I would say, with a heart-shaped carriage way and a portico in what was then called Garden Road. Only one of those houses is still standing and the original house has now been rebuilt.”

Valli remembers meeting Queen Mother Frederica and her daughter, Princess Irene, as well as the royal grandchildren from Greece and Spain when they came to visit their grandmother. “It was a different Madras, a different period altogether. This was a private road and children would come from neighbouring houses to play. There was a Barbican Cricket Club named after the house and there were mongooses and cobras in the bushes. What struck me was that Princess Irene dressed like a nun from the Sharada Mutt — in a white cotton sari with a blue border and she had that gentleness and kindness that comes from true simplicity. The contrast between the two women was startling. The Queen Mother dressed in saris too but she was very regal with a perfectly coiffed head of grey hair and she wore these beautiful embroidered silk chiffon saris.”

“They attended my Odissi arangetram in 1975 in my parents’ home and both of them came backstage to congratulate me. I have such vivid memories of those days. But two years earlier, I had danced for them in their villa in Rome and she gave me a gold ring with the royal insignia, which I still cherish.”

Valli remembers being in awe of the grandchildren when they came. “They would roll up in this huge limousine and we would watch them from across the road.

Their bodyguards wore coloured kurtas and we found that very funny; all these servants going about in bright yellow and orange and green. We were all invited to tea and I remember eating chocolate cake. There are certain things one can never forget. When I danced for them aged 16 in their villa in Rome, they offered us an Indian meal with idlis and the Queen wore a sari for the occasion.

They had exquisite grace and, when we went to lectures by Dr. Mahadevan at his home, the Queen and her daughter sat on the floor like everyone else.”

Prince Felipe could, in fact, do much to raise Spain’s fortunes and profile in India.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2021 1:33:57 PM |

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