PRINCE CHARM­ING

He could be a char­ac­ter from a Vis­conti film, the last mem­ber of a still care­free aris­toc­racy, liv­ing its fi­nal hours in the lap of idle lux­ury. Ma­haraja Rao Holkar II is a for­got­ten and very poignant fig­ure. The prince and aes­thete was a friend of Man Ra

VOGUE Hommes International (English) - - CONTENTS TRENDS - BY Anne Di­atkine

Rao Holkar II was a ma­haraja in pre–in­de­pen­dence In­dia. An aes­thete, with a pas­sion for art and de­sign, and a vi­sion­ary, he cre­ated an is­land of moder­nity and panache around him. A por­trait.

Shortly be­fore he died in 1961, when he had planned to write his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, the Ma­haraja Yash­want Rao Holkar II, the last sov­er­eign of the State of Indore in In­dia, burnt all his cor­re­spon­dence, no­tably with Henri– Pierre Roché, the cult au­thor of Jules and Jim and Two English Girls, among other texts. It was his way of say­ing that no one else would write what he hadn’t writ­ten him­self. Rao Holkar II will for­ever re­main a leg­endary char­ac­ter, in­creas­ingly evanes­cent as the last eye wit­nesses of his life dis­ap­pear. His ex­is­tence will now be re­flected only in the traces left by oth­ers, all those people who have be­come fa­mous, whom the prince knew and loved through­out his trav­els, and, in par­tic­u­lar, dur­ing his unique in­ter­lude, as young man, at Ox­ford Univer­sity. He spent time in Paris, where he fre­quented the most cre­ative and ex­per­i­men­tal avant– garde of the day: the Sur­re­al­ist artists, those “rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies with­out a revo­lu­tion”, as an acid–tongued mem­ber of the group, An­dré Thirion, refers to them in his Me­moirs. —›

Very lit­tle is ac­tu­ally known about Rao Holkar II from the man him­self. His High­ness spoke very lit­tle in pub­lic. His son Richard Holkar, who now lives in Paris, re­mem­bers that “he didn’t seek fame”. He stood out for his im­pec­ca­ble el­e­gance. He was no show–off. How did a fu­ture In­dian prince come to live in Europe? He be­came the head of the State of Indore at a very young age fol­low­ing his fa­ther’s ab­di­ca­tion in 1926. He would not hold full pre­rog­a­tives for an­other four years, un­til he was 20. How does one get through be­ing a stu­dent at Ox­ford’s most pres­ti­gious col­lege, Christ Church, attended by the sons of the Bri­tish aris­toc­racy, and the butt of racism set against a back­ground of colo­nial­ism, de­spite his no­bil­ity? In a word, how does an in­di­vid­ual be­come what he is: a vi­sion­ary prince, who at­tempted to in­tro­duce to his people the modernism he had dis­cov­ered in Europe, with­out ever deny­ing his own cul­ture, in­clud­ing when he lived in France or in Eng­land? In many ways, the Ma­haraja Rao Holkar II, was a demo­crat in his own way, a pi­o­neer. Imag­ine a young prince, alone, sent to study at Ox­ford, as was of­ten the case with the In­dian elite. He had an English pri­vate tu­tor, Mar­cel E. Hardy, a former univer­sity pro­fes­sor and a suc­cess­ful businessman, who kept an eye on him. Hardy was the first to kin­dle the fu­ture Ma­haraja’s in­ter­est in art by in­tro­duc­ing him to people who would show him the way in the art world. He and his wife were re­ally Rao Holkar’s sur­ro­gate par­ents. They would in­vite him to din­ner and it was in the Hardy fam­ily that the prince would de­velop a de­ci­sive friend­ship, one of those re­la­tion­ships that changes your life. Mar­cel Hardy’s son–in–law, Eckart Muthe­sius, was the son of the great ar­chi­tect Her­mann Muthe­sius and was fas­ci­nated by the Bauhaus move­ment. To­gether, the two friends crossed Ber­lin look­ing for the most in­no­va­tive build­ings. They went from ex­hi­bi­tion to ex­hi­bi­tion and vis­ited the Weis­senhof Es­tate in Stuttgart in 1927. Eckart Muthe­sius was study­ing ar­chi­tec­ture but didn’t yet have a com­mis­sion to his name when they first met. Quite nat­u­rally, the Ma­haraja de­cided to en­trust his friend with the de­sign and build­ing of his ex­traor­di­nary mod­ernist palace, Manik Bagh ( the garden of ru­bies ), in 1929, a few months be­fore his in­vesti­ture. How­ever, at the time, in Ox­ford, the young prince was still un­der tute­lage and very much in the spot­light, “which he didn’t care for at all”, his son re­mem­bers. In­deed to such an ex­tent that when­ever the prince went to Paris, he felt as though the city was a place of fre­netic lib­erty and free­dom.

What bet­ter source than the press of the time to cap­ture what a ma­haraja rep­re­sented to the com­mon man? The briefest ap­pear­ance of ei­ther Rao Holkar II or his fa­ther, Holkar III, im­me­di­ately be­came the sub­ject of an ar­ti­cle, how­ever short. Look­ing at the press cov­er­age, though, it be­comes ap­par­ent that fa­ther and son had rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent styles. The fa­ther was plagued by ever–grow­ing prob­lems: he was swin­dled by his but­ler, who sold his fab­u­lous car col­lec­tion in 1922, es­caped an at­tack in Los An­ge­les “by three Hin­dus armed to the teeth, as­sisted by two Mex­i­cans” in 1926, and im­plored his two wives and par­ents to let him marry a beau­ti­ful Amer­i­can, Nancy Miller, in 1928, threat­en­ing them with sui­cide. Rao Holkar II, mean­while, stood out first and fore­most for his el­e­gance. Bet­ter still, the press at the time gave the rea­sons that forced Tuko­ji­rao Holkar III to ab­di­cate early: for no less than the kid­nap­ping ten years ear­lier of a mother and her daugh­ter, “the pretty Hindu Sowk­abai Paan­dar­i­nath Rid­jpurkar”, the il­le­gal ap­pro­pri­a­tion of their pos­ses­sions and “sys­tem­atic cru­elty” to­wards them. And if that weren’t enough, the same year, Holkar III tried to kid­nap the dancer Mum­taz Begum and had the trades­man Bahia as­sas­si­nated, as re­ported in both L’Homme li­bre and L’In­tran­sigeant, dur­ing a sen­sa­tional trial in 1928. There’s noth­ing of the sort re­gard­ing the charm­ing Ma­haraja Rao Holkar II. Ad­mit­tedly, his ar­rivals in the port of Mar­seille were de­scribed in de­tail, minute by minute, per­haps for want of other in­for­ma­tion. In France, the ma­haraja of Indore lived in Saint–Ger­main–en– Laye, just west of Paris, in the Château d’Hen­nemont — to­day the town’s in­ter­na­tional school — re­named Château Holkar. Rao Holkar II stayed in this splen­did man­sion, boast­ing count­less bed­rooms, with his young wife, Ma­ha­rani Sh­ri­mant Ak­hand Sahib Soub­hagya­vati Sanyo­gita Bai Holkar. Al­though theirs was an ar­ranged mar­riage, the cou­ple were in love and gave off a mag­netic aura, ac­cord­ing to Man Ray, then a young pho­tog­ra­pher, who was asked to “im­mor­talise” them in Cannes. The young prince’s re­quest says a lot about his per­son­al­ity. Af­ter their first meet­ing, the Ma­haraja asked Man Ray to be­gin with a por­trait of his favourite horse. The pho­tog­ra­pher spent an en­tire af­ter­noon in His High­ness’s sta­bles, “more than I have ever done for a hu­man be­ing”, he grum­bled. But the horse trainer hated pho­tos and re­fused to send them to the prince, who had re­turned to Indore. Man Ray wasn’t so eas­ily de­feated, and sent them to the prince him­self. Upon re­cep­tion, the Ma­haraja was so en­thu­si­as­tic that the fol­low­ing year, when he rented out an en­tire floor of a ho­tel in Cannes for him­self, his young wife and his staff, he called in the pho­tog­ra­pher again. “The Ma­ha­rani was an ex­quis­ite teenager. Dressed in the French style, she wore a ring with a huge emer­ald, that the Ma­haraja had bought her that morn­ing.” Did it come from Chaumet, where he was a loyal cus­tomer, like his fa­ther? Or Mauboussin? Re­gard­less, Man Ray, who was used to work­ing to mu­sic with a bat­tery–pow­ered gramo­phone that he op­er­ated him­self, got the cou­ple to dance. Un­for­tu­nately, the next day his old cam­era jammed while he was try­ing to take a por­trait of the “very re­laxed” Ma­ha­rani. There was no sign of ir­ri­ta­tion or anger on the part of Rao Holkar II ( ever in fact ). He opened a cup­board where “a whole col­lec­tion of cam­eras and shiny brand–new equip­ment ap­peared, as if by magic. “Help your­self”, he said. But Man Ray was dif­fi­cult, and his habits well en­trenched. He had to have his old cam­era, for him it was like wear­ing “old shoes” rather than new ones that need wear­ing in. By the time they started the ses­sion again, Man Ray felt so at ease with the cou­ple that he thought of “sug­gest­ing more in­ti­mate poses”, as if no one would see them”. He promised he would de­stroy the neg­a­tives once he had given them the pho­tos. He never ac­tu­ally got round to do­ing this, but one photo does re­main as a ves­tige of that fan­tasy. In it, the ma­haraja, in a silk dress­ing gown, em­braces his young wife. —›

That an erotic photo ses­sion crossed the pho­tog­ra­pher’s mind shows the ex­tent to which Rao Holkar II felt free in France, not con­cern­ing him­self with pro­to­col, and was prone to cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere in which taboos seemed to van­ish. Man Ray’s me­moirs tell us that the ma­haraja drove very fast, even in tor­ren­tial rain and while chat­ting, and that he was fond of what weren’t yet known as dis­cothe­ques. In the evenings, they would go to a din­ner–dance venue to­gether, with a whole group of friends, of course, and an English teacher. Man Ray notes that the ta­ble was “buck­ling un­der the weight of the flow­ers” and the finest wines. The dolce vita? Rao Holkar II was de­cid­edly a pi­o­neer. His ev­ery­day life was taken up with his pri­vate jet, a train and boats, all de­signed by his friend Muthe­sius. He em­bod­ied the jet–set be­fore its time, but a slow, peace­ful jet–set, if I may use this para­dox. One photo shows the cou­ple at a gala evening in Hol­ly­wood for the pre­view of a Dou­glas Fair­banks film, she wore a west­ern sari and he, as ever, a white din­ner suit.

Al­ways im­prec­ca­bly turned out, Ma­haraja Rao Holkar II loved Europe. While a stu­dent at Ox­ford, he dis­cov­ered Paris and Ber­lin and took a keen in­ter­est in Bauhaus and de­sign.

The Ma­haraja was a great trav­eller and a fre­quent visi­tor to France, where he owned two prop­er­ties, out­side Paris and on the Riviera, and to the United States (the photo on the right dates from 1943).

Through Man Ray’s lens (left) and ( below) at the pre­miere of a Dou­glas Fair­banks’ film in Hol­ly­wood. The Ma­haraja and Ma­ha­rani were lead­ing so­cialites in great de­mand.

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