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The Pataudis, Indian Aristocracy, and More

View of the main corridor at Pataudi Photo,

In the turbulent years of the early 1800s, the East India Company, already entrenched in places like West Bengal, was trying to increase its sphere of influence by taking over territory held by Indian rulers. Among the fiercest opponents of the Company’s colonial ambitions were the Maratha warriors, who engaged the English in a series of battles across Northern and Western India. Whether the English could have defeated the Marathas on their own is a moot point; as it was, the redcoats were aided by the well-timed help they received from a number of Indians—petty rulers, mercenaries, and so on.The Anglo-Maratha wars went in favour of the English; and the English rewarded their Indian supporters with the one commodity that was in abundance: land. Portions of land, known as jagirs, were parcelled out left, right and centre to those who had been loyal. The taxes from these jagirs went into making both the landowners (the jagirdars) and the Company wealthy.

Pataudi was one such jagir. The first Nawab of Pataudi, Faiz Talab Khan, was of Afghan origin with a sprinkling of Turkish blood in him; but after he came into possession of this otherwise unprepossessing stretch of land in 1804, there was no question any more: he was the ruler of an Indian princely state. Today the property and the family wealth is all there is (the abolition, in 1976, of the privy purses that used to be a privilege of the jagirdars, means that the taxes go to the exchequer, not to the Pataudis). The title and the very concept of a princely state is obsolete.

But until India became independent in 1947, the Pataudis had been an important family. Most significantly, they were one of those who had been able to hold on to their jagir; many other contemporary jagirs were snatched back by the English after their jagirdars sided with the rebels during the Mutiny of 1857. All through the early 1900s, the Pataudis remained a part of the colourful,and very exotic, world of the Indian aristocracy. They rubbed shoulders with bigwigs like King George V, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Maharaja of Patiala (the latter, who was Chairman of the Chamber of Princes, was by far the most colourful member of the Indian royalty. He collected cars with approximately the same passion as he devoted to his 300 odd wives).Today, democracy means that Mansur Ali Khan and his filmstar son Saif (formally: Nawabzada Saif Ali Khan Pataudi) are, at least on paper, on the same footing as the local farmers. However, their palace is full of memories of royal days. All across—in the dining room, the corridor, the office that serves as a reception lounge, and in the rooms themselves—are black-and-white photographs by the dozen. In our room was a photograph, duly inscribed in a barely legible scrawl, of the Maharaja of Patiala himself. In the corridor leading to the billiard room is a picture of the exquisite Maharani Gayatri Devi, and a number of formal portraits of regal couples, in flowing robes and heavy jewellery. There is a photograph of the Nawab Begum of Bhopal, an ancestor of Mansur on the distaff side. (The jagir of Bhopal, unlike others, succeeded through the female line rather than the male; Iftikhar’s wife, Sajjida Sultan, therefore, was the Begum of Pataudi as well as the Nawab Begum of Bhopal).Unfortunately, very few of the photos are labelled (and most of the `With lots of love,’ inscriptions are followed by completely indecipherable signatures), so you can’t really make out who’s who in the gallery of royalty on display. Despite that, the photographs are interesting. There’s a delightful part-Indian, part-European feel to many of the costumes, with one especially noteworthy personage looking much like a 1920s flapper girl. There are massive turbans and long embroidered coats along with swords and heavy moustaches on the one hand, and fitted trousers and elegant satin slippers on the other. All extremely viewable.Not quite so old, but also worth looking at, are the 1969 wedding photographs of Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore (Begum Ayesha Sultan). They made a very handsome couple, and the pictures are a treat. Alongside the wedding picture is a more recent photograph of the couple, taken a few years back: still handsome.Other than the photographs, there’s a copy of the family tree. It’s kept at the reception office, or can be found in the billiard room. If you have some time to kill, have a look at it: it has some interesting notes on the history of the Pataudis.

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