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Pictures courtesy: Indian Portraits (DAG)

The Good Life

The luxury of looking good
Officially commissioned portraits speak volumes about lineage

Kishore Singh

Maharani Sita Devi was famous for wearing sarees of French chiffon

Maharaja Yashwantrao Holkar II of Indore is dressed in a tuxedo, with an overcoat hung casually over his shoulders. He looks like an American dandy. His consort, maharani Sanyogita Devi, is in a Western gown, an emerald on a string of diamonds dangling around her neck. Both represent the high style of Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s. Fashion houses in the West have created their clothes and jewellery. Their likeness in the portraits done for the occasion shows them at the height of Art Deco living.

I chanced upon the images while researching an exhibition on Indian portraits, and found the link with luxury design houses fascinating. Of course, we’re aware that design houses — whether Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels and others — had representatives in India who travelled extensively and undertook commissions, complete with family crests, for royal families.

Extraordinarily, Indian royals overcame their initial hesitation of becoming impure through overseas travel and were soon connoisseurs of the finest that the West had to offer — and influential enough to undertake commissions that involved innovation — such as maharani Sita Devi ordering a width and length of chiffons from France for draping as sarees.

Cartier created its famous tutti-frutti necklace for the maharaja of Patiala, and Rolls-Royce, of course, had an office in India to cater to the high demand for its cars, customised to individual tastes and requirements, including zenana saloons with shuttered windows and curtains. Just how much vehicle manufacturers were willing to create bespoke products for the Indian maharajas is evident from the shikar car up for auction in, of all places, Las Vegas, complete with an elephant gun that was used for hunting by a former ruler of Kota.

Brands aside, one of the more interesting elements of art in the 19th and 20th centuries was the creation of portraits, whether painted or, later, photographed. Of course, there was, in India, the curious hybrid where ‘artists’ painted over photos not just to colour them but to add curious collectibles — furniture, carpets, drapes, chandeliers, vases, clocks and so on, to the portraits. Did the sitter want these as a reflection of his eclectic and worldly tastes? Or did the photographer-artist want to introduce them to show the sitter as a person of experience and learning?

In any case, sitting for portraits was considered a thing that men from elite families did routinely. Royal families did it to perpetuate memories and also to project their lineage. Later, when photographs replaced painted portraits, it was interesting to note that the sitters aired their most meritorious jewels, medals and robes for the occasion. There was thus the sense of a scene being created around which a portrait was organised. The attributes of the personality and office became almost as important as a physical likeness to the subject. 

Speaking for myself, I can say that such portraits have set me wondering about many things — the woven fabric of the tunic and why so many grandees seem to be wearing the same jama; the design of a carpet and whether it is Persian, Afghani or Indian; the jewels that you might see on father and son, but less often continued among female descendants, pointing to the difference in the male and female toshakhana? Is that vase on the painted shelf Wedgwood, the crystal Baccarat? 

Portraits may not be popular in the digital age, with Instagram and selfies taking over the image-making market, but as any true blue-blood knows, there’s nothing like a good portrait to tell the khaandanis from the wannabes.

The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator

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