India 2008: Royal Reinvention

When India gained independence 60 years ago, all the country’s princely states were absorbed into a common dominion. Then, in 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi stripped India’s royals of their official titles and abolished their privy purses as part of an effort to bolster the economy. Some royals found it impossible to adjust to the new demands (also known as earning a living) and watched their fortunes dissipate. Others reinvented themselves for the new India, where entrepreneurial success is now the ultimate status symbol. Many ventured into high-end hospitality and consulting for luxury brands, basically doing what they do best: showing the rest of us how to live the good life.

“The idea of harnessing royalty for a luxury company is a great opportunity,” says Maharaj Raghavendra Rathore—known to his friends as Raghu—the great-grandson of the Maharaja of Jodhpur and one of India’s leading fashion designers. “When I launched a line of chocolates, I designed an elaborate gold-embossed box with a regal-looking figure, and there was a great response in the market. If you can repackage it, the idea of royalty can work fantastically.”

Rathore’s father, Maharaj Swaroop Singh, was among the first to convert his royal residence into a heritage hotel, a means of earning a significant income while preserving some of the outward aspects of the family’s legacy. Today Rathore’s own collections for his burgeoning lifestyle empire, Rathore Jodhpur, include couture, furniture and design objects, and gourmet foods.

In a country where the luxury market is exploding, a royal association can add undeniable brand prestige. Cartier and Hermès have unveiled lines that seek to tap into the allure of India’s royal past. Rathore recognizes that his heritage gives him an authenticity that such companies covet. (His family invented the jodhpur pant, after all.) “In the years to come, there will be a lot of money going toward re-creating the royal era,” Rathore said during the World Gold Council’s Indian Auditions competition in Mumbai, an event aimed at promoting progressive gold jewelry design. Rathore had been brought in to source jewelers, dress the models, head up the judging, and simply lend his famous face.

Asked what his father would have made of all this, he said, “He was a one-man PR and marketing force for Rajasthan. Back then it looked like we were selling our heritage, and other kids teased me for that. But my dad said, ‘Let it go in one ear and out the other, because sooner or later they’ll be following in our footsteps.’”

Sameer Reddy is a special correspondent for Newsweek International.