Chronicling the untold tales of Rashtrapati Bhavan

Updated - November 16, 2021 08:41 pm IST

Published - June 16, 2013 09:45 am IST

First lady of the U.S. Jacqueline Kennedy with President Dr. Rajendra Prasad at Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 13, 1962.

First lady of the U.S. Jacqueline Kennedy with President Dr. Rajendra Prasad at Rashtrapati Bhavan on March 13, 1962.

Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, India’s sixth President was a stickler for time; when he sat down to read the morning papers at sharp 6 a.m., all he had to do was to reach out for the papers without even having to look at the table. His butler knew exactly where to put the papers and at what angle the President’s hand would reach out for his dose of news and views.

“You could set the clock by him,” Taj Mohammad, who works as a Head Butler in Rashtrapati Bhavan recalls. “He was absolutely punctual and everything had to be done as per schedule. But one day, he was chastised by his attendant,” he says, smiling at the obvious curiosity that his words have allowed to build.

“There were two lifts for the President’s use…one day while the attendant sat outside the lift that the President was expected to take, Dr. Reddy went ahead and used the second lift. As soon the attendant found out, he ran down the steps and met the President just as the doors opened. The President was a bit startled and told the attendant, “Today, you’re late”. And then to everyone’s shock the attendant without losing his nerve replied that he was not late, but the President was at fault for taking the wrong lift,” Taj Mohammad says, pausing again.

And just as you begin to wonder what punishment lay ahead for the impudent attendant, Taj Mohammad resumes the story “….and as soon as the security personnel moved in to remove the attendant, Dr. Reddy intervened to say that the attendant was absolutely right and it was his own fault”.

Taj Mohammad’s assortment of stories about Presidents and their guests -- like the late Sri Lankan President J.R. Jayewardene who liked to have his breakfast at 4 a.m. and preferred korma with roti or former Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom who requested to sample the famous keema parantha -- have been collected and preserved from the time he was a little boy and his father Manzoor Ahmed worked as an attendant at the Old Secretariat building during British rule.

His contemporary Karim Ullah serves as the Chief Butler and has been a regular to the Rashtrapati Bhavan kitchens, starting with the time when his father Shafi Ullah was invited as a sous chef who went on to introduce Mughlai cuisine in the otherwise English kitchen.

Karim Ullah’s is a cornucopia of interesting nuggets about likes and dislikes, food preferences and the skill with which the kitchen staff, the butlers and the attendants communicated and coordinated for an outstanding service.

“There were no call bells then; with a swift flick of our hands to our throat, we indicated when the next course had to be served or the table cleared.

The young butlers learnt the craft from their seniors, just as the commis chefs in the kitchen looked up to the master chef to learn their culinary craft,” he says.

Stories like the time when Giani Zail Singh would walk up to his security personnel to ask what they ate for dinner, or the time he spent chatting with the rest of the subordinate staff or how A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had no fixed hours for eating -- he would usually eat his dinner past midnight and insist on only one person to wait on him -- are carefully etched in memories and hidden from the public eye.

These stories that breathe life into the otherwise two-dimensional narratives, like the rest of the history of the majestic Rashtrapati Bhavan, are being revisited, the dust being brushed off; the haze lifted to accurately chronicle these.

On November 19, 2012 on the 25th anniversary of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the 13 and the current President, Pranab Mukherjee, set the ball rolling for a multi-volume compendium of Rashtrapati Bhavan, from the time it was conceptualised as the vice regal lodge to its present position as home to the Head of the State.

“The President is very keen that the Rashtrapati Bhavan be open and accessible to the common man. It is a national monument, a living heritage with rare items of art, culture and historic value. A series of volumes documenting these have been planned in association with the IGNCA and we hope this task can be accomplished as soon as possible so that full knowledge regarding the treasures of Rashtrapati Bhavan is available to the public,” says Venu Rajamony, Press Secretary to the President.

The life and times of all the past Presidents, the high points of their presidency, the memorable moments with their State guests, the joie de vivre and even bereavement -- Presidents Dr. Zakir Hussain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad passed on in office -- the legacy they left behind will all be part of a volume on the anecdotal history of the Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The volumes, the first-of-its-kind official narrative, will have Rashtrapati Bhavan as the central theme and will document every bit of detail.

Making of the Rashtrapati Bhavan will be the central volume, which will essay the archaeology, architecture, the significance of its design. There will be separate volumes on anecdotal history, President’s Body Guard, one of the oldest regiments, the retreats in Mashobra (Shimla) and the Nilayam in Hyderabad, the flora and fauna that abounds in the estate and even an illustrated book for children.

Titled ‘The multi-volume document of Rashtrapati Bhavan’, the volumes will be drafted in consultation with experts from across section -- landscape and restoration specialists, authority on arts and architecture -- who have been included in a steering committee to aid IGNCA in conceptualising, implementing and monitoring the project.

While the outer time limit is three years, IGNCA has been asked to produce a volume every six months.

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