The maharajas of India were born collectors. From the quaintest of things, to the most stunning, ostentatious jewels, they had the resources and the reach to turn their passions into reality. I remember a princess from an erstwhile state of royal Rajputana, recounting some of her fondest childhood memories. Her father, the maharaja, had acquired enough animals for his children to play in a real zoo, at home, with animals like giraffes, cheetahs, and elephants.
Others, like the late Maharaja Hanwant Singh of Jodhpur, who was one of the world’s most formidable polo players, and a trained magician, was obsessed with cars. He could disassemble an entire car and put it back together again, within a matter of hours. His fondness of cars is reflected in the collection of his son, the present Maharaja of Jodhpur, Gaj Singhji II who owns several vintage models, some of them Rolls-Royces, that were seen recently in the Capital at last winter’s vintage rally, Cartier’s Concours d’Élegance.
And once the maharajas’ fondness for precious objects from the West took hold, there was no turning back. Maisons like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, and porcelain-makers Minton, gunmakers Holland & Holland made a beeline for India to indulge this nascent passion.
Jewellery, Venetian chandeliers, fine crockery, Savile Row suits, bespoke shoes, even fine daggers and weaponry, nothing was too great for their princely tastes.
Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala commissioned the famous ‘Patiala necklace’ from Cartier, with 2,930 diamonds, the largest and most precious that that French house has ever made. The Maharani of Patiala, a few years ago, when asked about which of her jewellery pieces were made by Cartier, famously replied, “But darling, all our jewellery has been made by Cartier.”
Luxury maison Ferragamo, became a favourite of the beautiful Indira Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar, and mother of Maharani Gayatri Devi, who placed copious orders for shoes, some of them adorned with gemstones and pearls, all from this Florentine company.
Maharaja Jagatjit Singh Saheb of Kapurthala, one of the most well-dressed royals of his time, passed on his sartorial flair to his great-grandson, the dapper Tikka Shatrujit Singh of Kapurthala, who until this day, wears the Maharaja’s signet ring and the beautiful buttons that he’s inherited. The Kapurthalas, like other royals, also commissioned Parisian trunk-maker Louis Vuitton for all their baggage; it was therefore only fitting that it was Tikka who spearheaded this brand’s entry into India, for whom he remains an advisor today.
Some Indian royals put their works of art and decorative materials into the very grand buildings and palaces that they built. Many of them fell into a collection mode by the very nature of their huge palaces and establishments. Thus, the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, known as ‘the world’s largest private residence’, was built of beautiful light-pink coloured sandstone abundant to the region of Marwar.
That project was undertaken as a famine relief measure in the 1930s, to provide employment to thousands. It was natural to equip it with art deco furniture and motifs, current at the time, and it is today a thriving luxury hotel. We witness that same urge to showcase beautiful objects at the Falaknuma Palace at Hyderabad, as amassed by the Nizams, which is also an exquisite hotel.
Today, several of the maharajas showcase their collections of automobiles, crystal, paintings, silver and other objets d’art at these very palaces. The City Palace at Udaipur is an outstanding example, with a unique ‘Crystal’ gallery refurbished by Shriji Arvind Singhji Mewar of Udaipur.
And today, anyone can be a collector of fine things, as long you have your checkbook ready. Or you may take the approach that something you collect today, might become valuable in the future. Everyday objects that we take for granted are also collectibles, such as old photographs, picture postcards, and even comic books.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, India’s last Viceroy and first Governor General, who died in a bomb explosion on his small boat at the hands of IRA terrorists in 1979, together with his 14-year grandson Nicholas, converted his passion for memorabilia into a special hobby. Blessed with several grandchildren, he put away many such boxes for all of them, to be opened on dates he specified. These became family time capsules, of value today.
One of the world’s biggest collectors of royal Indian jewellery, even necklaces made for the Maharaja of Patiala, is Sheikh Amad bin Abdullah Al-Thani, CEO of Qipco, Qatar, a cousin of the Emir, who was so mesmerized by the display of jewellery he saw in the October 2009 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, ‘Maharaja: The Splendour of the Royal Courts’, that he instantly decided to start his own collection.
Five years later, he opened his very own exhibition at The Met in New York City, ‘Indian Riches — Treasures from India’ that displayed baubles from India’s past from 400 years ago (well into the Mughal era) until today. Al-Thani’s collection is unsurpassed today, and he continues to acquire royal jewellery from the collections of the Maharaja of Patiala and elsewhere, including Cartier’s fabled three-tiered ruby necklace.
In India, with the spread of wealth and emergence of successful young entrepreneurs, the collection bug has spread far. Businessmen and technocrats too have their collections that encompass varied tastes, such as fine cigars, single malt whiskys, and vintage wines. Joining the traditional range of items, are hand-painted movie posters from the 1950s that today command eye-watering prices.
Growing fortunes have meant greater exposure to brands, and this has percolated into a passion for collecting. In 2019-20, the number of ultra high-net individuals is projected to grow from 137,100 today, to 348,000, and they will have a combined net worth of ₹415 trillion (Source: Kotak’s 2015 Top of the Pyramid report; ultra high-net worth individuals are those with a minimum net worth of ₹25 crore mapped over 10 years).
The interesting shift is when wealth moves beyond the obvious metros to tier-2 and tier-3 cities, with 44 percent of these HNIs coming from smaller towns. This has meant a reworking of strategy for many luxury brands, who now target these smaller cities as a matter of course. They are reaching their customer base through exhibitors, local partners, and programs specially conceived for brand outreach. For example, the Pyramid report speaks of a luxury handbag company that now derives 70 percent of its new customers from tier-2 and tier-3 cities.
This brings to mind a gentleman from Ludhiana, who successfully runs one of Punjab’s largest wedding exhibitions, and whose passion is polo. He is determined to revive the sport in his hometown by attracting players, and eventually sponsors. Something that the Maharaja of Jodhpur has been able to do wonderfully well with Royal Salute, that sponsors the yearly Maharaja of Jodhpur Golden Jubilee Cup, where players from all over the world fall for the charm of the Blue City and the glittering parties hosted by the Maharaja.
Today, the well-heeled want the best cigars and spirits — witness the mushrooming of wine clubs and single malt clubs all over the country. The rarer, the better. Women are making a bee-line for limited-edition bags. The Pyramid report mentions an instance when a luxury bag brand sold as much as 10 percent of its limited-edition merchandise in Indore at a single event. Or the burgeoning obsession for watches, many of which, like Jaeger-LeCoultre are steeped in India’s rich polo-playing history, having created the famous Reverso, that flipped over the wrist during play, to protect it from breakage.
The real collectors want the rarest, the limited editions. So while we turn consumers of luxury collectibles, we can also appreciate their grandeur and heritage in our own land. Here’s to the good life, and to collecting those objets that we truly love and cherish.