July 25, 2021 6:15:26 am
By Achint Raj Caroli
In the first two decades after Independence, the Rashtrapati Bhavan had the honour of becoming a temporary address for visiting dignitaries, and the legacy continues till date. India was establishing itself on the world map, but it did not let go of traditions that included caring for guests as the saying goes, “atithi devo bhava (the guest is god)”.
The first Indian occupant of the Bhavan, governor-general C Rajagopalachari, moved into the more modest set of rooms in the north-west wing and reserved the most luxurious south-west wing for visiting dignitaries. This guest wing has three floors with a total of 14 rooms, covering an area of nearly 38,622 sq ft. The first floor is normally reserved for heads of states or head of a government, spouses and senior members of the delegation. At the heart of the guest wing are the Dwarka and Nalanda suites, which were occupied by the viceroy and vicereine respectively, during the viceregal era. The suites have antique furniture pieces designed by Edwin Lutyens and a rarely-seen antique shower that can give any modern-day Jacuzzi a run for its money.
Mohammad Sirajuddin, a former household employee, still remembers the anxiety of the Rashtrapati Bhavan team when US president Dwight D Eisenhower arrived at the majestic building in an open blue Cadillac, flanked by president Rajendra Prasad and prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His visit from December 9 to 14, 1959, was the first-ever US presidential visit to India.
On arrival, Eisenhower was escorted to the Dwarka suite and was served coffee in the sitting room. Special arrangements were made to cater to the president’s preference for steak and decaf coffee, Sanca. The items, which were not available in India, were sourced from abroad with the help of the Ministry of External Affairs. There were enough of the choicest beverages, too. Buckets of ice and fresh fruits, particularly varieties of mangoes, were stocked in plenty as it was advised in the dietary preference that the president “indulges in large quantities of fresh fruits (like mangoes) at all times” and that they be kept in his room so that he could eat them in-between meals. Special barley water was imported from the US, as well.
Among the many special arrangements was the provision of a 110-volt electricity connection in the suite so that Eisenhower could use his dry shaver. The chefs were briefed to prepare food with absolutely no fatty acids and, accordingly, special menus were crafted and served during the scintillating state banquet. Eisenhower was so impressed that he noted, “Although I have, through many years, become largely insensitive to the appointment of the quarters where I lay my head, I must confess I experienced a feeling of amazement in the Rashtrapati Bhavan.”
Later, Edward P Maffitt, counsellor for political affairs at the US embassy in New Delhi, would write to the Secretariat of the President of India: “Thank you for the list of Rashtrapati Bhavan personnel who should be remembered for their excellent hospitality services during President Eisenhower’s visit. Here are 44 medallions which our President wanted them to have.”
Visits by other dignitaries have included kings and queens and preparations would begin months ahead. Before Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, arrived in January 1961, Rashtrapati Bhavan officials worked feverishly. The Queen was visiting independent India for the first time. The bands were specially trained to play the marching tunes composed by John Philip Sousa and Kenneth J Alford, and operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan, which were preferred by the royal couple.
The advisory received from Buckingham Palace regarding her food and beverage preferences was especially noteworthy. One of the most bewildering points in it was that the Queen cherished “dry tea”, which was then arranged from London. It was the British High Commission that came to the rescue by arranging a suggestive menu on a daily basis. The seniormost chef at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Safir Hussain, with his two able deputies, were given the honour of cooking for the Queen. He was up to the task, having honed his culinary skills through his service for six viceroys to India.
The Dwarka suite, which had been earmarked for the Queen, was given a complete makeover. It was refurbished to give it a classic British peerage look, with antique furniture ferried from Shimla. India went to great lengths to showcase its matchless heritage and hospitality. Unprecedented state banquet arrangements were made for the royal guests. The invitation for the banquet, too, was unique. It was encased in a “wooden scroll lined with silk inside”. The intricate designs on the card and the scroll were all handmade by renowned artists. The menu was carefully selected and was almost entirely an European fare. Hors d’oeuvres was followed by almond soup. The salad was fish paupiette while the main course comprised the choicest delicacies — roast goose, mint potatoes, green peas and cauliflower. Desserts were a meringue basket and croutes. The state banquet was followed by a dance-and-music recital.
Almost all visiting heads of state and government stayed with their main delegation at the guest wing till the late 1970s. The trend saw a shift after the 1980s, primarily because of the limitation of accommodating big delegations. After Pranab Mukherjee became the president, the guest wing was restored and refurbished. The entire three-floor block has been given a makeover with optimum changes to keep the essence of the regal presentation intact and make it more guest-friendly in terms of contemporary comfort.
As an independent nation, India has been remarkably effective and successful in presenting its super-rich food and cultural heritage. This has helped in creating a synchronised ecosystem to facilitate conventional, as well as back-channel diplomacy with pomp and grandeur. The Rashtrapati Bhavan’s legacy will be remembered in the history of cultural diplomacy for the aroma it spreads and the experience it creates, of a truly incredible India.
(Achint Raj Caroli is additional comptroller of the President’s household)
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