A Glimpse of Princely India
By L. F. RUSHBROOK WILLIAMS Bombay circle : one belongs—or one does not. Wide differences of outlook, traditions and birth mark off the aristocracy from the middle classes into Whose hands political power has passed. But occasionally, someone who does not belong to the circle, even if he is a foreigner, finds himself admitted, generally by force of friendships of very long standing, to a kind of personal connection with one of the Princely houses. The circle then opens to him; his presence is accepted; his wife may even be free to join with the maharanis and princesses in family ceremonials; he can gather facts of which the outside world knows little.
Such an opportunity fell to the present writer. Because of friendship with four generations of the great Rajput dynasty of Kutch, he was invited, with his wife, to take part in the family cere- monials connected with the marriage-alliance between the heir-apparent of Kutch and the Younger sister of the Maharaja of Tripura—an event which constituted the greatest social occa- sion in Indian aristocratic circles this spring. The ceremonials were conducted partly in Bombay and partly in Calcutta; they were attended by a great gathering of princes, heirs-apparent, maharanis and princesses from many of the ancient ruling houses of India : they were marked by protracted, elaborate, traditional rituals, both religious and social, which occupied the best part of eleven days. The President, the Vice-President and the Prime Minister of India all sent their blessings to the young couple.
Superficially the whole occasion might have seemed the expiring flicker of a social order. The preliminary rituals performed separately by bride- groom and bride in localities nearly two thousand miles apart; the traditional karat (bridegroom's) Party, more than a hundred strong, which accom- panied the Yuvaraj of Kutch right across India as he set out to bring his bride to her new home; the stately procession, composed not only of the barat party, but of almost every Kutchi national in Calcutta, which escorted the bridegroom, enthroned on an immense illuminated chariot, With flaming lights and martial music, to the Palace of the bride's family (a procession which diverted Calcutta Saturday evening traffic for more than three hours); the sepoys in the tradi- tional uniform of Tripura who lined the route; the fireworks; the formal banquet where the men, ranged in order of precedence, sat cross-legged marquee, while their ladies dined apart inside the palace—all these things seemed purely of the past.
Still more reminiscent of ancient India was the focal ceremonial of the marriage according to the separate rituals of the solar and lunar protecting influences—of the sacred fire and of the battle of flowers—which at last sanctioned the knotting of the scarves of bridegroom and bride within the stately, twenty-one-tiered pagoda, open to the sky, which denoted the royal rank of a Princess of Tripura.
To any casual observer, the impression of a reversion to the days of old must have been deepened by the pageantry of the costumes which surpassed anything that the West can show, even at a British Coronation. Political India dresses simply, even drably, in homespun. This gathering seemed to have stepped straight out of the past. The ladies were a brilliant sight in their saris, either stiff with gold, according to the tradition of Rajputana, or in the modern pastel shades fashionable in the East. Their necks, arms and ankles blazed with emeralds, rubies and diamonds, Some of the fabulously splendid gems gleamed from antique and stately ornaments handed down from generation to generation; others shone with enhanced beauty from elegant modern settings designed by the artist-craftsmen of Bond Street and Rue de la Paix. The men were scarcely less colourful. Their coats of brilliant brocade, their brightly tinted scarves which bound sword-hilt to scabbard as a sign of peace and amity, and their head-dresses combined to form a parterre of every colour of the rainbow. Scarcely less impressive was the variety of physical types, all bound to- gether in the common brotherhood of Rajput blood and tradition which transcends remoter ethnic origins. Tall, wiry men of the ancient fight- ing aristocracy of Rajputana mingled with the heavier-built princes of the centre and the north and with the sturdy, shorter nobility of the east, whose faces showed traces of past racial links with Nepal and Further India.
Yet to talk with the men and women who com- posed this traditional gathering is to realise that the ancient aristocracy of India lives not in the past, but in the present : that it is displaying vitality and a power of adaptation to new condi- tions. The very marriage itself was significant. Never before had a Prince of KutCh gone so far eastward for his bride. The young couple met HE Indian Princely families form a closed on silver stools beneath a gorgeously decorated at one of the many social functions of the season at Delhi, where the Prince is an undergraduate. They wanted to marry; their personal inclinations triumphed over formal tradition : they had their way. They underwent the ordeal—for ordeal it is—of the ancient ceremonials because it was expected of them. But their own outlook on the life before them is entirely of today. They will shape their own career, live in their own modern flat, make their own friends. Their attitude is typical. To meet the young heirs-apparent and maharajkumars gathered at the wedding was to discover that almost every one of them is either studying for, or has already achieved, a position in the administrative service, in the armed forces, in the foreign service, or in some other branch of government.
Nor are the older generations backward in facing up to the new conditions, although their links with the past are naturally stronger. Many of them now pay great attention to the develop- ment of their private estates, and their influence and prestige among the people whom they formerly ruled are still considerable. But the field of public employment is not as accessible to them as it is to their sons. It is not always easy for princes of forty or fifty years of age to find the opportunities to serve India which their capacity and experience warrant.
Yet there is the example of the Maharao of Kutch, the father of the bridegroom in the Kutch- Tripura alliance. This widely travelled prince, whose work as Honorary Minister for three years in. London received high commendation, has now been formally appointed to the diplomatic service as India's first Ambassador to Norway. The selec- tion of their Maharao for this post has been a source of pride to every Kutchi. These enter- prising people—the Scots of India—occupy them- selves with financial and commercial undertakings in every continent as well as in every part of India. The great receptions which they organised in their prince's honour testified to the respect and affec- tion which the House of Kutch commands.
The case of the Maharao of Kutch may be exceptional because of the degree of personal success which he has achieved by hard, unselfish work, backed up by remarkable gifts for diplo- macy. But the spirit which has inspired him to identify himself with the new India is shared by many of his contemporaries, as well as by the rising generation of the Indian aristocracy. Even if succession duties and heavy taxation should eat deeply into their fortunes, the spirit in which the Indian princely houses are facing the future should ensure that they and their traditions will remain a permanent part of the heritage of their country.