Paris falls for glamour of India’s modernist maharajah

Items from Manik Bagh Palace of Indore goes on display

Published - September 26, 2019 10:37 pm IST - Paris

An image of Indian Prince, Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and his wife Sanyogita Devi of Indore.

An image of Indian Prince, Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and his wife Sanyogita Devi of Indore.

They were India’s golden couple of the 1920s and 1930s, two beautiful people who cut a wildly glamorous dash across the globe, being photographed by Man Ray and sipping cocktails with Hollywood stars.

The extraordinary lives and impeccable taste of the yesteryear Maharajah and Maharani of Indore — Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and Sanyogita — are celebrated in a spectacular new exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

The pair created a gem of an avant-garde palace on the Malwa Plateau in the heart of India. They became patrons of many artists and designers of their day. Some 500 pieces of modern design from the Manik Bagh Palace in the maharajah’s hometown of Indore are being exhibited alongside archival materials.

An oasis of understated but dazzling modernist luxury, the palace was furnished with pieces by Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret among others, with art by Brancusi.

The first building in the subcontinent to have air conditioning, it also had a ballroom where the couple could do the foxtrot to the jazz-loving maharajah’s collection of 1,00,000 records.

The aesthete prince commissioned the young German architect Eckart Muthesius to create his dream of the future.

Together the two men combed the artist studios of Paris and Berlin with art advisor Henri-Pierre Roche — author of the novel Jules and Jim — to find the works to fill it.

Muthesius was also asked to kit out the 25-year-old maharajah’s sleek new royal train, as well as a barge that was a “vertible floating modernist palace” and do the interiors of his private plane.

He designed, too, a hunting caravan so the prince — who had come to the throne at 17 — could stalk tigers in style.

Despite being bound together in an arranged marriage when she was 10 and he only a few years older, the pair were a thoroughly modern couple, said the chief curator Olivier Gabet.

Few could fail to be charmed by the bright young maharani, who shared the maharajah’s interests.

“She was involved in all their projects and was treated as an equal by her husband. In fact, they were quite an exceptional couple,” said Mr. Gabet.

Man Ray, their guest on the French Riviera, thought the same. He was very taken with the maharani, whom he described as an “exquisite girl in her teens”.

“Dressed in the French style, she wore a ring with a huge emerald that the Maharaja had bought her that morning,” he later wrote.

Clearly deeply in love, the couple had “a magnetic aura”.

In fact they charmed everyone wherever they went, whether filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille and actor Gary Cooper in Hollywood, or old world royals like themselves.

The couple did not have long to enjoy their idyll in their modernist home.

The maharani died at the age of 22 from appendicitis, leaving behind their toddler daughter, Usha, the present maharani.

The maharajah’s artistic adventures pretty much ended with her death, said Mr. Gabet, “which shows just what an influence she had.”

After his wife’s death, the maharajah went on to marry again twice but his inner life remains mysterious.

He died in 1961 as he was planning to write his autobiography, having burned all his private papers.

Collectors like fashion moguls Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge, and the Qatari prince Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani, snapped up much of the couple’s furniture and carpets in a legendary auction in Monaco in 1980.

Their modernist “garden of rubies” has been swallowed up by the expanding city of Indore.

The once stately salons of the Manik Bagh have long since been subdivided into offices for the local excise department.

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