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Ancient Indore’s Maharajah Moderne

The past, present and future have always existed in coalition in India. The past enlightens us, the present ignites us, and the future recites us. This perfect melange wouldn’t have been possible without personalities across our rich history driving the message of tradition and progression simultaneously. Yashwant Rao Holkar II, the Maharaja of Indore was one such symbol of his time

Yashwant Rao Holkar II with wife Sanyogita Devi of Indore

The Modern Maharajah

Once upon a time – in 1731 to be precise – a few generals of Peshwa Baji Rao I formed a dynasty which came to be known as ‘The Holkar Dynasty’. This dynasty was a key member of the Marathas and ruled over Indore in Central India. Yashwant Rao Holkar II was the last monarch of the dynasty since India gained independence during his reign and formed the Dominion of India.  

Before you continue reading, take a second and imagine a Maharaja. A Maharaja in India who ruled over one of the country’s most integral kingdoms. He is a dapper, slim built, dashing young man wearing an evening tuxedo with slick back hair and his collar up, right? Well, that is perhaps not what you imagined. In tradition, a Maharaja doesn’t often reflect this aesthetic. However, despite all the prestigious titles and honours he received, Yashwant Rao Holkar II was at heart, the resident of an India that was numerous decades into the future. 

Yashwant Rao Holkar II Maharaja of Indore

With a stellar academic career at Oxford, England and quite an extensive cognisance of Europe and its cultural marvels, the Maharaja was rather ‘moderne’ for the pre-independence era. Over the years, with his keen eye and curious taste, the Maharaja along with his wife, Sanyogita Devi, created what is considered one of the world’s most important private collections of Modernist furniture and decorative arts. In their honour, the Musée des Arts Decoratifs (MAD) in Paris, is currently showcasing the first of its kind exhibition, called “Moderne Maharajah” hosting up to 500 pieces of these unique modernist designs. The exhibition walks one through a poetic series of events which represent what led the young maharajah to develop an affection towards culture and art.

First Tastes of Modernism

It was perhaps on a sunny yet windy morning at Oxford, when Yashwant Rao Holkar II bumped into Dr. Marcel Hardy, a francophone tutor who eventually became the first force to gently nudge the maharajah towards the lifework of European modern artists. As the two spent more time together, the pair became a group of four, when they were joined by German modern architect Eckart Muthesius, and French artistic advisor and writer Henri-Pierre Roché. The four put together all their curiosity and interest to become students of the best teacher they could find: ‘Mother Europe’. In the 1920s, they travelled together to countries including France and Germany, where they spent key moments in museums, exhibitions and fairs, which furthermore drove the maharajah’s passion for arts. 

Yashwant Rao Holkar II Maharaja of Indore letter to Jacques Doucet

Deep Diving into Modern Art

As he learnt more, Yashwant Rao found himself completely immersed into modernism. By then, it was integrated into his everyday lifestyle and choices. In 1926, the last king of the Holkar dynasty dawned upon Indore but the maharajah was nowhere near done with his escapades in the west. Even as Maharajah and Maharani, the couple travelled to France and USA quite often.

It was on one such inspirational trip in 1929 that he met Jacques Doucet, a well-known French couturier and collector of the era. Upon meeting him, Yashwant Rao saw a side of modernism he had perhaps not thought of in the wildest of his fantasies. The exhibition at MAD showcases the letter by the maharajah where he wrote to Mr. Doucet saying, “Je ne puis quitter l’Europe et rentrer dans mon pays sans vous dire combien ont été délicieux les trop courts moments que j’ai eu l’avantage de passer en votre compagnie,” which roughly translates to, “I cannot leave Europe and return to my country without telling you how amazing were the very short moments I spent with you.”  He left Paris in awe of the exquisite furnishings by Eileen Grey and Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Pablo Picasso (the world-renowned symbol of cubism), and sparkling Pierre Legrain book bindings, all of which had a profound impact on the young maharajah.

The Manik Bagh Palace

Bedroom at Manik Bagh Palace Indore

This moving introduction to Modernism led the couple to order for the construction of the Manik Bagh Palace in Indore, India. The idea behind the palace was to have a melting pot of luxury, comfort, modernity, truly inspired by the Modernism Movement. The exhibition gradually introduces to the viewer the different pioneers who held key responsibilities in the Palace’s construction and went on to execute each one brilliantly. Eckart Muthesius is one such individual who had the idea of mixing modernism with iconic symbols of Indian tradition. Responsible for initial designs, the blueprints evoke a resemblance to Bauhaus architecture from the 1920s in Europe. 

The exhibition beautifully incorporates different videos of construction workers on site, as well as discussions on the designs and blueprints. The lighting, sounds and imagery of the exhibition transport the viewer back to those very moments, completely immersed in the classic taste and grandeuse of the palace and its furnishings.  

Armchairs with integrated lighting at Manik Bagh Palace

Modern Elements of the Palace

The most interesting thing about the Manik Bagh Palace is not just how it was a huge leap for a royal family of the era but also how well the interiors as well as exteriors of the palace fit into today’s trends. As one explores the exhibition, one can’t help but think, “Oh wow, I should get that for my place”. Items from this 20th century palace would fit in perfectly at our homes almost a century later. A large carpet with minimal designs and subtle colors or a reclining chair with leather finishings are all elements one considers ‘must haves’ in today’s homes. 

From portraits by renowned photographers like Man Ray from the USA, Minya Diez-Duhrkoop of Germany and Rita Weir Martin of England, to interior décor pieces from Maison Desny on Champs-Élysées in Paris, the tastes of the Maharajah and Maharani never fail to amaze and inspire. After having viewed the exhibition, irrespective of difference in tastes and choice, the level of modernity and innovation in the very selectively chosen furniture as well as furnishings that decorated the palace, along with the sheer similarity in what is being done today, is more than enough to make one believe in time travel. 

Grand hall staircase at Manik Bagh Palace

Coordinates: Musée des Arts Décoratifs – Nave, 107, rue de Rivoli, Paris, France
The exhibition is on view until January 12, 2020

Written in collaboration with Veronique Poles