Written by Keerti Tiwari
Louis Mountbatten’s appointment as the Viceroy of India was a “bombshell” for Edwina Mountbatten. But she adapted swiftly. Her presence loomed large over the Viceroy House and the political activities associated with it. She was only following tradition: The Viceroy’s House was, after all, home. Likewise Emily Lytton Lutyens, wife of architect Edwin Lutyens, had another connection to the monument. As the daughter of Lord Lytton, who had been Viceroy during 1876-80, she was not untouched by India’s influence. Though it’s difficult to establish explicitly, some credit goes to her for the presence of lotus and elephant motifs in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The construction went on for about two decades, with four vicereines “helping” Lutyens. Some like Winifred Hardinge were “very cordial and pleasant”, though instances of disagreement were not absent. One of them led to Lutyens’s oft-quoted remark to Lady Hardinge: “I will wash your feet with my tears and dry them with my hair. True, I have very little hair, but then you have very little feet.”
Dorothy Irwin, the first occupant of the Viceroy House, paid close attention to the furnishing and decor. Some of the “strangely English” flowers in the garden were planted on her directive. As a housewarming gift from Queen Mary, she was given a Chinese goldfish, and, in turn, the queen got updates on the developments at the Viceroy House. Lady Marie Willingdon brought the winds of change to the Viceroy House, when she got the walls and ceilings of various rooms painted mauve. Her fondness for the colour earned the pun “mauvey sujet” (mauve subject) from Lutyens. Her obsession with change was not restricted to the interiors. It entered the gardens, too, as carved stone elephants at the gates uprooted many traditional plants. Even a stern letter from the queen to avoid changes did not deter her. It was left to the sensibilities of the next incumbent, Doreen Linlithgow, to restore the house to its former glory, and she invited Lutyens to refurbish it.
Of course, there was more to the duties of the vicereines, who also participated in a variety of state events. At state balls, receptions, dinners, investitures and garden parties, the vicereine would play the perfect hostess. Edwina, for example, checked on the staff quarters within the Viceroy House premises, found them in deplorable condition and ordered improvement.
Mountbatten’s tenure witnessed the beginning of the metamorphosis, when the guest lists at the formal functions started to feature people from diverse backgrounds, representing different nationalist perspectives. Edwina observed, “I think Viceroy’s House and grounds are now looked on more as a part of India than as a British stronghold.” The Viceroy House became the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the President of India in 1950. The first ladies of independent India were starkly different from their predecessors. Little is known about the first incumbent, Rajvanshi Devi Prasad, the wife of Rajendra Prasad. The only photograph of her shows her in all simplicity, clad in a white sari and distributing prizes at the Government House Estate School. This simplicity was the hallmark of the leaders who formed the new government. It was the time of nation-building and the first family clung to these principles.
Unlike before, the influence of the first ladies on the interiors of the Rashtrapati Bhavan was not as pronounced after Independence. The second President, S Radhakrishnan, was a widower when he assumed office. During the presidency of APJ Abdul Kalam, the Rashtrapati Bhavan had no first lady, and the scientist preferred to hold discourses with students when not practising sitar or reading books in his free time. But there have been instances when interiors have been refurbished. Saraswati Bai, wife of VV Giri, took keen interest in the painting of frescoes on the ceilings of some state rooms, while Begum Abida Ahmed, wife of Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, was a connoisseur of art, and redecorated rooms and upholstery.
But the most significant imprint on the Rashtrapati Bhavan was when Pratibha Devi Singh Patil became president. Her ascension to the highest constitutional position in the country was indeed an important marker in the over nine-decade journey of this magnificent place.
Keerti Tiwari is Deputy Press Secretary, President’s Secretariat
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