Memories of a prince
In fine fettle: A family photo taken in the early 1960s. Yajurvindra Singh is on the left.
I was born into the royal family of Bilkha, a town in Kathiawar, now Gujarat, situated at the scenic foothills of the Girnar, in the periphery of the Gir forest—the sole habitat of the Asiatic lion in wilderness.My earliest memories were the drives and shooting sojourns in Rolls-Royces, Packards and Jeeps into the forest surrounding our towns and villages. The hunts were primarily for daily meat and every precaution was taken to ensure continuity in breeding. Hunting partridges and quails in the morning was an exciting adventure for us kids. We were normally always a house full of relatives and friends. Holidays to Nainital or Veraval and other such destinations had about 100 of us. The experience of being a part of such a large group was exhilarating.
Our 1938 Phantom III Rolls-Royce was very much a part of my growing up years. Even my old school friends have since confessed that they tried to be friends with me so that they could ride in it. The movie Guide had our car in it and meeting the actors—Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman—and the writer of the film’s US version, [Noble-prize winning] author Pearl S. Buck, was memorable.
Former Indian fast bowler Karsan Ghavri also had an encounter with the Rolls-Royce. My grandfather, the ruler of Bilkha, was on the way to the club one day when his driver hit Ghavri’s old cycle. The cycle was a wreck, but on recognising my grandfather, Ghavri kept quiet. My grandfather found out later that he was a talented junior cricketer and he promptly bought him a new sports cycle and a bat. These were delivered to his house with a warning never to come in front of the Rolls-Royce again!
We were encouraged to play sports. The general feeling was that through sports one acquired all the important traits that would be needed in life. It brought in systems, discipline, fitness, team spirit and the ability to accept and cope with success and failure.
I can still recollect coming home during my vacation having topped my class in studies. On relaying the news, there was a smile of approval but when I told them that I had scored my first half century, there was cause for a celebration. Cricket was a religion in my household. We had a Bilkha cricket team and we were district champions.
Love for sports was in our DNA. But my love for cricket as such was greatly enhanced after I watched India beat Australia in 1964 in Mumbai at the CCI [Cricket Club of India]. My family had taken the entire Patiala Pavilion. Some of the Indian greats of the game were in and out of our pavilion.
Regal ride: The 1938 Rolls-Royce Phantom III owned by the ruler of Bilkha.
My father was sceptical about my taking up cricket so seriously as he felt that the only way forward was through a good job. The fact that I was working for a corporate as well as playing put his mind at ease. Every time I spoke to him after a match, he would ask me just one question, “Butterfingers, how many catches did you drop?” I found it most annoying. Finally, I had the last laugh when I equalled two world records—most catches in a Test (seven) and most catches in an innings (five)—against England in my first Test in 1977. He later told me the reason for his question. The world, he said, perceived the royals to be lazy and lethargic and he did not want his son to fall into that category.
One of the funniest messages I received after my world record was from the maharaja of Baroda, Fatehsingh Rao Gaekwad. He was a diplomat to the core but had an uncanny sense of humour. It read, “Congratulations, finally an Indian has caught the Pommies by the balls.”
The changing scenario in India made it essential for people like me to not only complete our graduation, but also do a postgraduate degree. I did my postgraduation in marketing management after finishing my cricket career. There was a place for people like us in the corporate world as we were brought up with integrity, honesty, loyalty and we were team players.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was not a phrase that applied to us. We were punished and reprimanded for any mistakes or bad behaviour and disrespect, even if it was to a servant. We were sent to boarding schools at a very early age. I was just four and a half years old when I was sent along with my brothers to the Welham Preparatory School in Dehradun. Many years later the servant, Udham, who had taken me there revealed that he had remained hidden in the school to see how I was getting along.
My maternal grandfather was the maharaja of Mandi and most of our holidays were spent either in the palace or at Mandi House, Delhi. I took my young daughter, who was born in Mumbai, to Mandi for a holiday to show her the place where I spent a lot of my childhood. The cook Dhana still remembered the dishes that I enjoyed and Udham had become a driver. The first cultural difference came about when the servants addressed my daughter “Rajkumari”. In Mumbai, we never brought her up as royalty, and being called a princess was quite a revelation to her. During the trip, we tried to bring her down to reality “Mumbai-style”, but with the household staff pampering her, it proved difficult. My wife and daughter travelled in a car with curtains; the purdah system still existed in the early 1990s.
Two kings: Yajurvindra Singh’s maternal grand father, the maharaja of Mandi (left), with the maharaja of Kapurthala, Singh’s great grandfather.
Another tale about my grandfather’s resilient attitude was when I took him to watch a Ranji Trophy match I was playing in. He loved photography and felt it was his right to take my pictures while I was going in to bat, unconcerned about the cricket match taking place. The rules would have had me out as it took much more than the two minutes allowed for me to reach the crease. My grandfather wanted me to pose and his adjusting and focusing took a while. Fortunately, the opposing captain was the prince of Baroda, Sangram Singh, who understood this sort of behavior. I went on to make my first first class century and on the way back I could barely make it to the pavilion, as I had the most enthusiastic maharaja photographing me in all possible poses on my return. One felt sorry for the former royals on occasions such as these and understood how far they were from reality. They did try hard to fit in with the masses, but changing their ingrained characteristics was always going to be an issue.
A common trait among most royals was that they were generous and were patrons of art and music, and backed talent and enterprise. They helped businessmen, artisans, sportsmen and other skilled people of their state to flourish and establish themselves in their spheres. Many of the present successful jewellers, shopkeepers, traders and business houses were all recipients of their largesse.
The 1970s was the most difficult period in the life of the former rulers and their families as they needed to find a new path in life. Some decided to get into politics as they were still a force to reckon with. However, this, too, had a negative impact when the Emergency was declared.
The opening up of the Indian economy and the escalating progress thereafter had a positive impact on the life of the royals. The corporate and financial world soon had them in senior positions. The well-known foreign institutions and consulting firms have now become a popular destination for the young aspirants. Teaching and writing are good vocations, but the hospitality industry has always been an area in which they shone.
The greatest impact of the royalty’s presence has been in the tourism sector, where the former maharajas of Rajasthan via strategic partnerships brought back the splendour and glamour of royalty of the past. They mesmerised the foreign tourists with the historical significance of India and the culture and lives of the Indian princes. The palaces, havelis and forts have become the destination for the rich and the famous Indians as well as foreigners for glamourous events and wedding. This benefited most of the former rulers as almost every corner of India has palaces and history to go along with it.
The younger generation of royals are now well-educated and astute in finance and management. Many have gone back to their principality and are being encouraged by the people to get into politics.
The world of art and culture has been another area revived by the royals. The royals who were buyers of branded goods such as jewellery, perfumes, automobiles, art and exclusive holiday destinations, have now become sellers, advisers and providers of such luxurious goods and services. An example of this is my cousin Tikka Kapurthala. Our great grandfather, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, was one of the premier buyers of Louis Vuitton. Today, Tikka is the brand ambassador and the face of Louis Vuitton in India.
Another area of royal presence is the conservation of wildlife. Photography and writing books on flora, fauna and the beautiful natural landscape of India is something many have taken up.
The royals, having lost their states 70 years ago, were crippled by being deprived of their promised compensation 46 years ago. Fortunately, they have now become part and parcel of the growing Indian economy and are contributing immensely to its growth.
Hats off to so many of them and my ancestors, without whose acceptance of ceding their states to make a united India, we would still be living in a fragmented sub-continent.
The writer is a former cricketer and member of the Bilkha royal family.