The millionaire who would be a maharajah

Three newly married couples from Dewas, a princely state during the British Raj, pose for a photograph. Elaborate rituals and weddings a la royalty are some of the trappings that India's new rich are embracing. (TOI-Archives Mumbai)

Three newly married couples from Dewas, a princely state during the British Raj, pose for a photograph. Elaborate rituals and weddings a la royalty are some of the trappings that India’s new rich are embracing. (TOI-Archives Mumbai)

The identity impasse of being just another Indian millionaire.  

By Mansi Choksi

Is that a Rajasthani thali welded to those wrought-iron gates? Or is it a manhole cover? Could it possibly be an Anish Kapoor orb? Well, it’s none of the above. What you’re looking at is a crest, a coat-of-arms, a herald, and a vanity that India’s new rich seem to be increasingly smitten by.

The craze for family crests is hardly new. Greenbacks have always hankered after blue blood whether in democratic America or emerging India. But the fad has seen a recent spike with the rise in the number of gutka, cement and jeweler millionaires seeking social cachet. Crests are the most identifiable sign of class and old money, so if you haven’t inherited one, why not have one made to order? When the Mercedes Benzes are purring in his garage and the faux Victorian pillars holding up his villa, the final touch the social arriviste aspires to is a newly minted monogram on his estate gates, stationery, chauffeur’s livery and table linen.

“The ultimate Indian desire is for blood to slowly turn blue,” says Santosh Desai, social commentator and author of Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India. “After having wealth or fame, it’s the final confirmation of your specialness.”

Cultivating a royal aspect goes beyond ordering a crest. It could include flaunting an outrageously opulent lifestyle in the manner of a decadent princeling or nurturing an eccentricity like a moody maharaja from princely India — the sort who celebrated their dog’s wedding with a lavish feast. It could mean having the domestic help address you as ‘hukkum’ and have them back out respectfully when they leave the room. It could mean creating a deewan-e-aam and deewan-e-khaas in a Cuffe Parade bungalow or having a wedding album shot in a studio tarted up to resemble a Jaipur palace.

“These new status symbols strive for the non-negotiable feeling of kingship,” says Desai.

This desire for dynasty is something that businessman Baarish Date has successfully exploited to build his own little empire. Date runs Graphics Beyond, a firm that has designed the motifs and symbols for half a dozen modern dynasties whose origins are firmly rooted in trade — laboratory equipment, cement and pen refills. “Crests are a way for the rich and famous to express themselves in a discreet way,” he says.

Modern crests don’t have the eagles, unicorns or tigers of bona fide royals. The dinner plate crest, for instance, was commissioned by a realty tycoon who insisted that it be inscribed with the initials of his wife and daughters along with the family surname. “It’s seamlessly symmetric and articulate and the right way to sum up the solidarity the family stands for,” says Date.

While the Dalals, founders of a business advisory firm, wanted their crest to interpret the name of their family home Vasant Vilas in Babulnath, the Bhagwats, an NRI family who recently moved from the Far East to Pune, had Date’s team design a crest with an oriental theme. “Personal branding is about summing up the traits the family identifies with,” says Date. Recently, a freelance graphic designer from Bangalore was asked to design a family crest for a jeweler family of Seths. “It was a vague brief: ‘Make it look royal, maybe it can have a building in it’,” says the designer. Nikhil Meswani’s family (who are related to the Ambanis) has a monogram to embellish their stationery and everything else that leaves their home.

In India, the crest is a colonial construct. “Crests didn’t exist in princely India. They are typical of European royalty and were created by the Crown to appease Indian kings,” says Sharada Dwivedi, author of Lives of the Indian Princes and The Maharaja. Royal crests were designed and conferred by the Raj, but the prince or king was allowed to choose his own motto. “Many crests ended up with banal motifs like weeds and palms,” says Dwivedi.

When American writer Mark Twain visited India in 1896, he was amused to see India’s petty princes falling over one another to win titles from the Raj. “It would seem that even the grandest Indian prince is glad to add the modest title ‘Sir’ to his ancient native grandeurs, and is willing to do valuable service to win it,” wrote Twain in his travelogue Following the Equator. “He will remit taxes liberally, and will spend money freely upon the betterment of the condition of his subjects, if there is a knighthood to be gotten by it. And he will also do good work and a deal of it to get a gun added to the salute allowed him by the British Government.”

Dwivedi says that apart from royalty, a class of aristocrats in Bombay and Calcutta called sethias were also titled and conferred with crests. “Many of them were Parsis; they lived good lives but they weren’t outrageously opulent,” she says. “Princely states don’t exist any longer, privy purses have been abolished but we are all fascinated by the idea of a monarchy.”

Our love affair with blue blood manifests itself in different ways. The Jodhaabai necklace that became popular with brides after the Hindi film Jodhaa Akbar. Or the Andy Warhol-styled face of the Maharaja of Nimrana that shows up on the kitschy bags of young adults. Or the increasing size of the feathered brooch on the groom’s turban. Or the way newly weds pose in Rajputana regalia as if they were royals.

Sangita Kathiwada, who is Rajmata to the 10,000 people of Kathiwada and the owner of the boutique Melange in Mumbai, says the rich can’t be the new royalty because money cannot buy breeding. “For generations, royalty is trained and that can not be obtained in one lifetime. But if the rich today work with corporate consciousness they will certainly be tomorrow’s royalty,” she says.

According to Desai, the fact that royal families were the only class in India that were not afraid of flaunting their wealth has inspired the rich. “The legitimacy of spending has grown over the years. Earlier, there was secrecy around the notion of wealth. If you were rich, it was presumed to be illegitimate, made at somebody else’s cost,” he says.

Self-conferred crowns, however, can still get you into trouble. Especially in Rajasthan, where tourists pay top dollar to step into the shoes of royalty for a day. Last year, a historian from London came to Rajasthan relying on a guesthouse website claiming royal lineage. It had all the trappings: a vintage car in the porch adorned with a crest, a self- designed monogrammed flag, mustachioed men in breeches. But unfortunately, Rana Pratap Singh had never taken a nap on the antique sofa. The historian went home fuming, threatening to sue.

Another family from Jaipur built a Rajputana palace off the Jaipur-Ajmer highway, complete with jharokhas, antique trunks, four-post beds, an artificial lake and Swarovski crocodile too. “Parts of Umrao Jaan were shot in my room,” admits a reticent Jai Hind college student, daughter of the jeweler who built the palace five years ago.

The desire to claim imaginary royalty, sometimes even staking a claim to Western aristocracy, has also found its way into advertising. One advert by a construction company on Marine Drive has a man in a ruffled shirt and faux Victorian velvet jacket with the tagline: ‘Who says aristocracy went out of fashion.’ Another has a woman staring into a lorgnette with a blurb over her head saying ‘Summer and winter palaces in one.’

Desai says that the favorite Big Fat Indian Wedding venue — a palace — is a naive attempt to distinguish oneself from the average civilian. “If you look at the penetration of consumer durables in India, there is very little differentiation today between very wealthy people and ordinary people, minus a few tiny things here or there,” he says. “So, at one level, because there is democratization in things you own, you can only differentiate yourself in other ways. A wedding is universal currency.”

It speaks loudest of all if elements of Indian and Western royalty are merged. After Lakshmi Mittal hosted his daughter’s wedding at the Palace of Versailles, two of India’s wealthiest families flew several hundred people to Florence for a wedding. Tanvi, the younger daughter of industrialist Sajjan Jindal, and Krishna, the son of businessman Raju Shete, married at a renaissance palace. A gutka baron had a 36-piece orchestra flown in from London to play everything from Beethoven to Raj Kapoor. The venue, Jag Mandir, was made to look like an English carnival, complete with human props. The big tamasha of the Indian wedding, says Desai, becomes even more fun when the guest list includes Westerners who can then happily participate in the enduring fantasy of India as an exotic, princely, jewel-studded nation.

(With inputs from Rachna Singh in Jaipur.)

Published in The Times of India Crest Edition; Date: Nov 13, 2010.