August 22, 2021 6:40:32 am
By Praveen Siddharth
The first resident of the Rashtrapati Bhavan had an inauspicious beginning to his stay at the Viceroy House. On December 23, 1929, Lord Irwin was travelling by train to Delhi, when a bomb was thrown at his viceregal train. The nonchalant Irwin is said to have remarked, “I heard the noise and said to myself ‘that must be a bomb’. But as nothing happened, I went on reading Chaloner (poet and statesman Sir Thomas Chaloner).”
Though only five viceroys had the luxury of calling the Rashtrapati Bhavan their home, 14 Indian presidents thus far, have resided in this magnificent palace. However, our presidents never really stayed in the same rooms that were once occupied by the Viceroys.
When the Rashtrapati Bhavan was built in 1929, the plan was clear. The south wing was supposed to be the living quarters of the viceroy and at the opposite end, the north wing was to be the guest wing. Accordingly, the rooms in the south wing were larger, imposing and befitting royalty.
Edwin Lutyens took great pains in designing the interiors and the furniture himself. When C Rajagopalachari became governor-general, he found the living quarters too grand and decided to move to the smaller guest wing in the northern part of the building.
This practice has been followed by all the presidents since then and the north wing became the family wing and the south wing the guest wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. In retrospect, all the viceroys unwittingly remained guests at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Though it resulted in, quite unfairly, the most resplendent wing of the palace being least known and seldom visited.
The guest wing consists of three floors, with lavish suites named after British viceroys and governors — Dufferin, Minto, Clive and Curzon. The Irwin and Reading suites, which were renamed Dwarka and Nalanda, are currently used exclusively for hosting heads of states. These suites are distinct from the rest of the building. These are much larger and exquisitely furnished with Burma teak panels, they have imported chandeliers from Europe and lavish carpets from Kashmir. But they are not really designed like the rooms of a palace. There is a certain homely feel to it. Perhaps, it is because Lutyens never really was a palace architect in the first place. What he did best was design country homes in England and this love comes to the fore in the detailing of the guest wing.
The furniture was designed by Lutyens himself and include pieces such as an enormous almirah with a drawer that drops down to become a stepladder; a wardrobe big enough for the guests to comfortably get inside and be clothed; nurseries for children on the third floor that had painted wooden chandeliers — “four praying angels for the night nursery, four galloping horses in the anteroom, and in the day nursery, four hens and their chicks with broken eggs spilling their yolks as the light bulbs!”. There was also a nursery loggia, fenced for the safety of the children, in which were hung wooden cages complete with wooden birds inside them.
The Royal Institute of British Architects note that “in their drawings collection is a design for a nursery wall clock in the form of a bewigged footman, his face being the dial and his eyes the holes for winding him up. Another example is the mantel clock that Lutyens designed for Lady Willingdon… the clock takes the form of an urn surmounted by a vase finial supporting a flower. This is actually a brass key cast as a pansy, by family tradition a pun on the French word penser, a reminder to wind it up. Lutyens was famous for his bad puns.”
For all its wit and humour, the guest wing is also a reminder of how desperate the British were to create a home away from home. In the opulence of the guest wing, there is also an angst, a desperate anxiety to make things last forever, though all around them nothing remained the same.
Perhaps, befittingly, on the walls of one of the rooms in the guest wing, still hang old, faded lithograph plates from the British soldier-painter George Francklin Atkinson’s Curry & Rice that was released in 1860. These plates depict scenes from a fictional Indian village “kebab” with the colonial officials caricatured to highlight the absurdity of their conduct in a land indifferent to them. Atkinson’s satirical work became hugely popular as it underlined the fact that the British would always remain as guests in this strange land.
Once the viceroys left, other guests have stayed in the guest wing intermittently. Records indicate that between 1947-67, there were about 32 heads of state who stayed here. The first visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1961 (she would stay twice more in 1983 and 1997) was particularly memorable, since she was there as a guest in a palace that had been built for her. One of the requests received from her was for “three 6-foot high wardrobes to be transported in standing position and its contents kept top secret”. Since the contents could not be emptied and the wardrobes were to be kept standing at all times, lorries were specially designed by the Indian army to safeguard and transport these wardrobes.
The guest wing has also hosted former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1984 and South African President and statesman Nelson Mandela in 1995. There were also visits by the heads of states from China and Pakistan. Former prime minister of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Bogra, stayed twice, in August 1953 and May 1955, with two different wives.
By the 1980s though, the guest wing had deteriorated due to disuse. After a renovation in 2013, Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stayed here. The last head of state to stay in the guest wing, in April 2015, was the currently on-the-run Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The guest wing of the Rashtrapati Bhavan will always remain as the one thread that connects the building to its colonial past. A reminder to a time when those who came as guests, overstayed for more than two centuries.
(Praveen Siddharth is private secretary to the President of India)
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