In France, Rao Holkar II felt free, heedless of protocol in an environment with no taboos.
The Comoedia dated 12 September 1932 reports that “the master glass–maker André Hunebelle has just finished a large decorative panel on a mirror for the maharaja’s palace in Indore. A unique piece that will be exhibited at 2, avenue Victor Emmanuel before being sent to in India.” The futuristic Manik Bagh palace, 500 kilometres from Bombay, in the state now known as Madhya Pradesh was nearing completion. Eckart Muthesius worked day and night, designing the lamps and lighting himself and choosing every item of furniture bearing the signature of now famous designers, but whose presence at the home of a prince was pure sacrilege, as all the ( industrial ) items were mass–produced. Charlotte Perriand contributed her famous chaise longue, which she customised in leopard skin. Eileen Gray’s “Transat” chair arrived in 1927; there was also Djo–Bourgeois round glass table with a metal pedestal. And what of Le Corbusier? They bought a few things from him. The palace is what is truly a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art making use of many art forms. No other building compares with it, either in India or Europe. The surprise does not stem from either pomp or sumptuousness, but from its bareness. And the most surprising feature is its unique air–conditioning system. Muthesius was not happy merely to transport a piece of Le Corbusier–style European architecture to India. He dreamt up “a palace you could live in”, as he says in a catalogue, “the first to combine private European culture with the Indian way of life” and with “everything adapted to the rather testing climate”. So the architect–engineer invented a soundless air–conditioning and purifying system. For greater coolness, the garden features an ornamental lake, which reflects the shade of the tropical trees, lit by lamps hidden in their branches.
Reading his description of the palace, its underground corridor and kitchen, so that the Maharaja and his guests would not be bothered by the strong smell of curry, and the bakery — also in the basement, his telephone line for internal calls, it brings to mind the whimsical inventions of Jacques Tati, decades later, in his film Playtime. Muthesius has thought of everything, including the colours of the furniture and the walls, designed to enhance the tones of the often very bright clothes of the Hindu guests. The palace was like the prince’s outer shell, and resembled him in part. Rao Holkar loved pure, simple lines and the palace was totally uncluttered. Obviously the absence of opulence was met with incredulity by the Indian guests, who tended to favour a much busier baroque style. Rao Holkar refused to allow the hanging of traditional portraits of nobles in costume covered in gold thread and frills. Instead, in the reception room, he hung two paintings by Art Deco artist Bernard Boutet de Monvel. The first shows him, in a playful mood, wearing a black cape lined with white silk, and a snow–white dinner suit. Everything is white, save the bow tie. The inspiration for the second is surrealist: the prince, sitting cross–legged in a white armchair, seems to fade into the various layers of white, which highlight his long, slim hands. Although the two paintings reveal much about the prince’s imagination and elegance, like the palace, they led to a general outcry. Where were the princely costumes? —›
Rao Holkar II’s palace, designed by Eckart Muthesius, is a masterpiece of minimalism, and encapsulates European modernity — the antithesis of the baroque style of Indian palaces.