In the 1930s, French artist Bernard Boutet de Monvel was commissioned by Maharaja Yashwant Rao Holkar II of Indore to paint portraits of him and the Maharani. De Monvel was greatly feted at the time: hailed by the American press as the “handsomest man in Europe”, and popular in the social circles of Europe and the United States, he painted the rich, the beautiful and the famous in his lifetime. And yet, it is his portraits of the maharaja that are considered his masterpieces. De Monvel’s eye for detail comes through vividly in the four portraits, though equally prominent in them is the couple’s refined and sophisticated style, right from the choice of clothes to jewellery and other accessories.

Educated at Cheam School, Charterhouse and Christ Church Oxford, Yashwant Rao Holkar II succeeded his father to the throne at the age of 17. His rule, from 1926 to 1948, is often referred to as the golden period of Indore. During this time, he commissioned hospitals, facilitated the first commercial flight between Indore and Bombay, and gifted an air-conditioned railway coach to Dr Rajendra Prasad.

It is believed that the maharaja’s assets – including the enormous income that came from his fertile and industrialised kingdom – were collectively worth around $70 million. Much like other Indian aristocrats and royals, the Holkars used this fabulous wealth to bankroll their trips to Europe and expensive lifestyle. But what set them apart in this world of extravagance was their excellent taste, their patronage of the finest names in arts in the 1930s, and their contribution to the culture of the Art Deco period.

Innate elegance

De Monvel’s portraits of the maharaja and maharani feature them in western and Indian attire. One of the paintings is all about the maharaja’s quiet elegance – he is dressed in a crisp white bowtie and tails, and de Monvel has captured the maharaja’s delicately tapering hands with finesse. In another portrait, the maharaja is in his traditional attire, complete with a sword and the famous Indore pearls. It would seem that the maharaja was torn between the two worlds he inhabited, wanting to live in both, while refusing to belong to any.

The maharani’s portrait, reflecting the artist’s love for balance and geometry, is particularly compelling. By including intricate details, like the lace border of her chiffon sari and the cut of her emeralds, de Monvel draws on his subject’s impeccable taste to tell the story. Despite her extreme youth, the maharani holds her own, looking comfortably poised in her clothes. She was dressed by some of the most famous names of the time, such as Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. The maharani was confidently stylish, and her signature look of draping fur with chiffon saris is emulated by Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee even today.

These six-foot portraits, which were once displayed in Indore, famously inspired MF Hussain who believed that he could do better than them.

Diverse tastes

The Maharaja of Indore came to the studio (in Paris) to be photographed, also in Western clothes – sack suits and formal evening dress. He was young, tall and very elegant. I got a substantial order from this sitting.… Next year, the Maharaja was in the South of France with his young bride. He had taken an entire floor of a hotel in Cannes for himself and his retinue. I arrived in Cannes before noon, was assigned to my room in the suite…The Maharanee was an exquisite girl in her teens. She wore French clothes, and a huge emerald ring. The Maharaja had bought it for her that morning while taking a walk.… The next day I was asked to bring my camera to their suite…to make a series of photographs that would be a record of their honeymoon. First, I had to play some jazz to which the subjects danced, and then they sat down holding hands. I made a few exposures, after which I suggested that they pose separately for individual portraits.

— An excerpt from visual artist Man Ray’s autobiography.

Unlike the formality of de Monvel’s studied portraiture, artist Man Ray captured the couple with an intimate ease – less like royalty and more like friends – in a series of arresting photographs. Ray and the maharaja shared a passion for jazz, which is translated into the upbeat mood of these photos.

The choice of artist for this commission was unusual, reflective perhaps of the maharaja’s artistic sensibilities that allowed him to be photographed in a manner quite unordinary.

Man Ray – whose style was influenced by Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Surrealism – primarily considered himself a painter. But he was also a sought-after photographer and his images are a document of the time and the people he knew. Virginia Woolf, Ava Gardner, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Aldous Huxley are just some of the names he photographed.

Artistic contributions

Generations of Holkars have patronised the arts in their time. Ahilyabai Holkar ordered the restoration of Kashi Vishwanath temple in 1766. Tukojirao Holkar III got gold and enamel purses created in the Art Deco style. And today, the family is reviving Maheshwari textiles and restoring fading properties into tasteful heritage hotels. But it was the contributions of Yashwant Rao Holkar II that stand out.

The king’s most passionate project was the Manik Bagh palace. This Art Moderne palace, made in the Bauhaus style, was designed by German architect Eckart Muthesius, who the maharaja met during his stint at Oxford in 1929. The maharaja and Muthesius came together to blend traditional craft with the new machine aesthetic, creating a unique genre of architecture in the process. Built in the 1930s, Manik Bagh was arguably one of the finest examples of chic international modernism in Asia.

The palace was meant to house a meditation temple by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși. But while the temple never got completed, the maharaja did commission two of the Bird in Space sculptures by Brancusi. Tragically, this remarkable piece of art was stolen due to poor inventory keeping during the transition of artefacts to the Indore Museum in 1948.

Investiture of Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar Bahadur of Indore. Photo credit: Christies/via Wikimedia Commons. [Public Domain].
Investiture of Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar Bahadur of Indore. Photo credit: Christies/via Wikimedia Commons. [Public Domain].

At Manik Bagh, the maharaja’s preoccupation with Art Deco came to flourish, as did the maharani’s aesthetic sense. Among the highlights was the delightful functionality of the nursery, where all the furniture was customised to a toddler’s size. From its tubular chairs and light fixtures made of chrome, lacquer and tinted glass, to the rich modernist carpets with sleek, geometric lines, all aspects of the interiors incorporated the fashion of the time. Every detail of the palace was created in Europe and involved the talents of designers Le Corbusier, Eileen Gray and Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, among others.

After his wife’s death in 1937, the king spent very little time in Manik Bagh and the palace eventually became a Customs and Excise Office in the 1970s. The queen’s glamorous boudoir became a neglected repository of government files in Godrej cupboards and most of the artefacts and furnishings were sold to Sotheby’s.

While the maharaja’s extravagances were hardly commented upon, his regular absences from the state due to travels abroad were often met with dislike. Despite this, Yashwant Rao Holkar II was admired by his people. He owned an impressive fleet of the finest cars, and often designed their interiors himself and monogrammed their handles. For the benefit of his subjects, who often came out to salute empty cars just because they were passing by, he designed twin lights on the fenders: red for him and blue for his queen. When the lights were off, the subjects would know neither members of the royal family were present.

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Long after his death in 1961, the maharaja’s legend continued to thrive with an odd supernatural twist, better suited to a 1980s Bollywood movie than reality. The late Sheikh Saud bin al-Thani, a cousin of the ruling emir of Qatar, came across the famous Man Ray photograph of the maharaja and saw himself as a reincarnation of the cultured king. The sheikh, who was born five years after Yashwant Rao Holkar II’s death, did indeed bear a striking resemblance to the king and often got himself photographed in a similar manner.

Such was his obsession that he bought almost every artefact linked to his previous life from auctions and exhibitions around the world, spending a fortune in the process. But his lavish and idiosyncratic expenditures resulted in grievously inflating the prices of antiques and art he bought for his country’s museums as culture minister. Due to this, the sheikh was briefly placed under house arrest in 2005. Although he may not have been the reincarnation he claimed to be, his acquisitions served to highlight the contribution the maharaja had made to the art and culture of the time.