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In a sleepy city in western Gujarat, Komal Sharma discovers the last maharaja of Morvi’s extravagant art deco playground.

Four hours west of Ahmedabad, along a spectacularly straight road dotted with occasional settlements, sits one of India’s most surprising architectural masterpieces: a maharaja’s palace designed to conform to the purest precepts of art deco style.

When it was built in 1942, the palace represented a radical shift from traditional palace architecture of the time. Perhaps that’s why its owner, Thakur Mahendrasinh, christened it the New Palace. He was the last maharaja of Morvi—a town which, historically, was a principality ruled by the warrior clan of Jadeja Rajputs. As remote as the New Palace feels geographically, it is a building firmly situated in the pivots of history. In the 1940s, when British colonizers still ruled, India’s royal families felt themselves slipping between past grandeur and a new sense of nationalism.

A generation of princes and princesses had been sent to the United Kingdom to study; they flirted with living in Europe and the US, where they had witnessed the West’s burgeoning architectural modernism. Art deco took hold in India all through the mid-20th century, particularly in the port hub of Mumbai. Local architectural historians claim it has one of the world’s largest concentrations of art deco buildings, second only to Miami. Thakur Mahendrasinh took the fashion for art deco to the biggest canvas possible: a brand new palace designed by architects Gregson Batley & King—a British firm popular in Mumbai—and constructed by Shapoorji Pallonji, also responsible for iconic projects including the Bombay Stock Exchange and Hong Kong Bank.

Rajkumari Rukshmani Devi, the daughter of the late Thakur Mahendrasinh, recalls her father’s vision fondly. “It was the dream of a young maharaja,” writes the former princess, who is known colloquially as Mira Ba. “In his early 20s, my father had traveled to America and he became very interested in art deco. It was the fashion at the time.”

The New Palace, a two-story structure with perfectly rounded edges on two corners, sits square in the center of a massive estate (the palace itself occupies only a tenth of the site). The cylindrical columns that line its facade give the exterior the quintessential geometry of art deco. I enter through the main door, into a terrazzo corridor that runs along the building’s periphery. Rows and rows of elaborately furnished drawing and dining rooms peel off from the corridor, enclosing the two open inner courtyards with fountains. The New Palace brings together the best of European modernism with traditional Indian typologies such as these cooling central spaces.

  • Words:
    Komal Sharma
  • Photography:
    Salva López
  • Production:
    Vinay Panjwani

But it is in its interiors, furnishing, art and artifacts, that Morvi’s palace comes to life. It is, without a doubt, a young man’s indulgence. The memories of decadent parties echo in its halls, lounges and grand staircase. In a more remote corner of the palace is an opulent bar with leopard-print upholstery, mirror work and erotic murals showing light-skinned women alongside darker-skinned men and women, all of them indulging in a garden of plenty. The maharaja commissioned Polish artist Stefan Norblin to decorate this palace, and his work ranges between seductive flapper-era portraits and mythological scenes of Shiva and Krishna.

The delight is in the details. There’s an indoor swimming pool with an attached gymnasium of curious contraptions, followed by a library that is right out of an English townhouse, complete with walnut wood paneling and a fireplace. Ahead, in an office stuffed with books and papers, Manharsinh, the palace’s caretaker since 1981, pulls out An Estimate of Decorations and Furnishing, an exhaustive proposal sent from Tottenham Court Road in London, all the way to this remote corner of Gujarat.

The list is long, descriptive and evidence of a discerning taste for luxury. “Napoleon marble columns, Botticino marble linings and architraves to the doorway, Cedar onyx columns with Belgian Bleu marble plinths, sliding doors cellulosed in Cheltenham bronze, satin silver electric ceiling pendants with 28 inch diameter glass bowls and clear glass rods and glass leaves, chairs in Cuban mahogany, pedestals in French Walnut, Island settee with vermin proof upholstery, first-class springing and stuffing, and covered in material to selection…” The list goes on.

“The maharaja loved all beautiful things, be it homes, artifacts, art,” writes Mira Ba. “He was a good tennis and polo player. His absolute, true love was horses. He was an excellent rider and raced all over the world. He was a keen golfer and wanted to build a golf course in Morvi. He also built an airport in Morvi and kept a small plane.” Relics of these hobbies live on at the New Palace: The walls are bedecked with trophies and medallions, oil canvases of horse riders and polo players, and larger-than-life portraits of ancestors including his father, Lakhdhirji Bahadur, and grandfather, Waghji Bahadur, dressed in all their finery. Modernity and tradition lie next to each other here, playfully and harmoniously.

As much as the New Palace is a story of the aesthetic, cultural and political shifts in the history of India, at its heart, it is someone’s home. It feels unlived in, but not abandoned. Amidst all the elaborate furnishings, wall-to-wall carpeting, cabinets full of crockery and innumerable sofas and settees placed around mother-of-pearl tables, once in a while, one spots vignettes of family life—photographs of young children or portraits of the women of the house, casually smiling at the camera, draped in elegant saris and pearl necklaces.

The palace is painstakingly maintained by a staff who have lived here and taken care of this property for all their lives, and they speak of it with tenderness. “When the royal family comes to live here, we hoist a flag on top, so that the town knows that they are home,” says one. “I have grown up looking at these trees in this property; the mango, champa, have all grown with me,” says another. The family, consisting currently of the queen and her four daughters, live in their various homes around the world, including Mumbai and London. They return to Morvi occasionally, along with their extended families, to the home of their childhood. Mira Ba says that the spirit of the place endures: “My father built this house for his mother, his wife, his children and himself,” she writes. “It is home to us all no matter where we go. When we return, that’s where all our love lies. In Morvi.”

“It was the dream of a young maharaja. My father had traveled to America and he became very interested in art deco. It was the fashion.”

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