A peek into the world of Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh reveals a life spent performing familial and public duties, preserving his country’s heritage, and exploring the world.
Over the course of this interview, Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur is jetting between Italy, England, and France. Questions pertaining to this story are relayed when he’s in one country, contemplated when he’s in another. When he replies, it’s right before he’s boarding the flight to yet another destination. Few lives are as peripatetic as Singh’s, but this is the life he knows, and loves.
The Maharaja — ‘Pacho’ to those familiar to him — is 24 years old. Alongside his royal title, he is a recent graduate of the Università e Nobil Collegio degli Orefici: Sant’Eligio in Rome, where he studied cultural heritage management, art history, and Italian since 2018. The eldest son of Princess Diya Kumari of Jaipur and Maharaj Narendra Singh, Padmanabh was barely four when his grandfather — Maharaja Sawai Bhawani Singh — adopted him as his successor. He was 13 when he was crowned Maharaja (king) following his grandfather’s demise. A decade later, the Maharaja is the much-loved public face of the Jaipur royals: taking part in the Holika Dahan rituals; preparing to graze the snowy slopes in Cortina d’Ampezzo; on the podium at a school’s annual sports day; and attending a public health check-up camp in Jaipur. He smiles at the camera at Machu Picchu, suddenly looking his (very young) age in an earflap beanie; next, he’s in black tie on New Year’s Eve, jolly red socks peeking out from beneath his dress pants.
When at home in Jaipur, the Maharaja’s days are spent with his grandmother, Rajmata Padmini Devi, and performing ceremonial duties at the many events that fill the family calendar. “There are months where there’s something or the other almost every day, and then of course there are quieter periods. My grandfather used to make it a point to attend as many as he could and always took me along. So, I feel it is my duty to continue that legacy. Also, these are beautiful occasions. If you’ve had a chance to witness Holi, Diwali, Gangaur, Teej, or Navratri here, you’ll agree that these are the things that make our country unique, and I feel it would be a shame if some of these traditions and stories died or fizzled out as time went by,” he states.
In Jaipur, the Maharaja often visits his mother’s outreach foundation, the Princess Diya Kumari Foundation, which focuses on social entrepreneurship and equipping women with income-generating skills, and while at home tries to help her out with managing the family’s various concerns. “There’s hospitality, education, politics, the legal side… the list is endless… It’s something that interests me a lot and it’s something that I can see myself doing in the years to come.” There is, of course, the City Palace itself — a heritage monument to tourists and visitors. To the Maharaja, it is home. “I often discover new corridors and rooms, and with those come new stories. I consider myself fortunate to call it home because there’s so much history in one place. Every day the palace offers new surprises that lead you to ask yourself and the people around you new questions,” he says.
As the Maharaja goes about his royal duties with poise (generally an overused adjective but one that certainly applies to him), how heavy is the head that wears the crown? “I was very young when I was introduced to what the rest of my life would look like, and of course, at first, I didn’t understand the scope of that role. Ever since I was adopted [as the successor] when I was three or four years old, I sort of had an idea of the scale of things. My grandfather was a heart patient for most of my life, and he wasn’t sure whether he would live many years, and hence the sort of rush to adopt me when I was that little. And ever since, slowly, he, without putting too much pressure, nurtured me for that role.”
The young Padmanabh was returning home to Jaipur from Mayo College in Ajmer following his grandfather’s demise when he witnessed a sea of people spill out onto the streets of Jaipur to pay their last respects. “That was quite an eye-opener for me,” he recalls. “I had to perform the last rites and observe the 12 days of mourning, where one got to meet thousands of people. Just the amount of respect people had for him and what he represented was quite overwhelming.” The pressure, he says, “is healthy.”
Amid the attention and the gilded familial legacy, he has learned to navigate friendships and personal relations. “When one is younger and when people find out, it is fascinating, but you know who your true friends are. It’s hard to develop a level of trust and a level of love with somebody, and, once you’re able to do that, those things don’t matter. I consider myself very lucky and fortunate that I was born into this particular family, but that doesn’t mean I am entitled or that I can get away with things others can’t. My parents, and especially my grandmother, have always made sure that we know we still have to live our own lives and find our place in this world, work hard and not take things for granted,” says the Maharaja, adding, “We were taught the value of money, and to respect those around us.”
The role of royalty in a democracy like India in 2022 is different from what it was pre-independence, or even up to 1971, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was passed and the privileges of India’s royals were withdrawn. Even so, most of these families wield enormous clout, each its own planetary system with a central sun and many orbiting worlds. They are cultural ambassadors and heritage-keepers, and many have chosen to enter the Indian political system (the Maharaja’s mother, Diya Kumari, is a Member of Parliament.) “I still feel there is a lot of responsibility — indirect responsibility — that we have and there are still a lot of people who look up to you for inspiration, for leadership,” says the Maharaja of Indian royals’ roles today. “A lot of us, including my mother, have chosen the path of politics to be able to exercise that influence for the betterment of our people. There are various other avenues that one can explore. My mother does a lot of charity work, something that I feel quite passionately about as well, and I do try and help whenever I can,” he ponders. “While there’s healthy pressure, I think with pressure comes a lot of responsibility. It also gives you a visible platform to pursue your objectives. I do look forward to that pressure — maybe not exactly right now, at this stage in my life, because I am young and I’m doing various other things — but very soon I’d like to return to India and try and work in public service, maybe not through politics immediately but through [philanthropic] foundations or NGOs,” he adds. His efforts, he says, are likely to be concentrated in the fields of education, sport, tourism, and women’s empowerment. According to the 2011 Census, Rajasthan has one of the lowest female literacy rates in India, at 52.12%, while, as a striking example of gender disparity in education, the male literacy rate in the same state stands at close to 80%.
Another field that is particularly attractive for him is restoration and renovation, thanks to historically significant structures like the Jaigarh Fort and the Jaipur City Palace, which come under the purview of his family. “With my studies in Rome, I am better equipped to understand and appreciate some of the cultural heritage that is being passed on to me and, hopefully, do a better job of protecting it. In the years to come, I would like to get more involved in the careful restoration of these historic structures so that they can be preserved for future generations. We do obviously have a program of renovating and restoring some of these significant properties on an annual basis, but some of them require more detailed instruction and work. I feel the fact that these opportunities exist makes me even more excited to go back to Jaipur and start living there fulltime and carry out some of these ambitions of mine.”
The Maharaja is also something of a fashion world favorite: there was a runway appearance for Dolce & Gabbana in Milan in 2017; a chat with Giorgio Armani; innumerable photo shoots. He has a chameleonic ability to carry off everything from a tee and jodhpurs to brocade bandhgalas to coattails. “Fashion is an extension of art and an area that interests me a great deal,” he says.
However, of all his varied hobbies, polo is his passion, and he is a member of the Indian national polo team. “It is something for which I often fail to find the right words to describe my feelings towards,” he says of the sport. “To be able to work with horses, creatures that don’t speak, teaches you a lot about teamwork, about feelings and emotions. And of course, I am a very competitive person,” he adds. Polo has also brought the world to him. “It’s a way to travel and explore new countries, cultures, and meet new people. I think I must have played polo in 20 or 30 countries — I’ve stopped keeping track. And, it has allowed me to represent my country.”
The Maharaja’s most profound polo memory was representing India at the Polo World Cup zonal playoffs in Iran in 2017, the youngest player to do so. “The national anthem went off and that was really a proud moment for me and one that I cherish every day. Of course, when we won the tournament and played the World Cup finals in Australia, that was very special.” Straddling the past and future at an age where most struggle to make sense of the present, the Maharaja knows he wants to do good, even if a clear path is yet to emerge. And a gleaming polo World Cup trophy would very well be the jewel in the crown.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia