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
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.