Born in 1890, Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla ascended the gadi of the 4,000 square kilometres Rajpipla State in 1915. During his nearly 33 years of reign until merger of the State with the Union of India in 1948, Maharaja Vijaysinhji was not only a sagacious and benevolent ruler who carried out several reforms and development works, but also a man of great taste and a gracious host.
In his magnificent palaces and guest houses in Rajpipla, his seaside mansion on Nepeansea Road in Bombay, his valley-view house in Mussoorie, and his riverside Victorian manor at Old Windsor in England, the Maharaja would often host memorable parties with every little detail attended to. His kitchen had chefs for different cuisines, Indian, Continental and Chinese, and even some who specialised in non-vegetarian dishes. They would surprise guests with exotic menus.
The Maharaja would host royalty and aristocracy from India, UK and Europe; viceroys and governors; racehorse owners, trainers and jockeys; and celebrities of various hues. Among his many close friends were Aga Khan III Sir Sultan Muhammed Shah, Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur and the author of the James Bond series Ian Fleming.
Being such a generous host and connoisseur of food, Maharaja Vijaysinhji was fond of cooking and devising his own delicious recipes. His most famous recipe is the Rajpipla Chicken which has been a favourite of family members and friends for nearly a hundred years. While on picnics or out camping, the Maharaja would invariably get down to preparing a dish or two. I had a film from the early 1930s where one could see him cooking in a jungle camp, dressed in khaki shirt and trouser, smiling at the camera, enjoying stirring the huge pot.
After Maharaja Vijaysinhji’s horse Windsor Lad won the Epsom Derby of England in 1934 (still the only Indian owner to win this coveted race in its history going back to 1870), his friend V.C. Buckley wrote in the Sunday Graphic and Sunday News: “He is the kindest, simplest and most hospitable person one could wish to meet. When the Maharajah of Rajpipla says, Come out to India and stay with me,’ he means it – not like many people who have a habit of issuing invitations which are not really meant. The Maharajah often comes to have meals at the guest house, and once or twice during a visitor’s stay will invite him to dine at the Palace. On these occasions the host wears white jodhpur breeches and a brocade coat buttoned up to the neck and reaching below the knees. In England, which he loves to visit, he only dons such clothes on State occasions, preferring for everyday wear, a well-cut lounge suit with usually a red carnation in his button-hole. At his Windsor house he entertains informally, partaking in a game of tennis or croquet, or a run in the motor-launch on the Thames, which flows beside the grounds. The long dining-table is adorned with racing trophies, and on Saturdays and Sundays one may be sure to find at least twenty people seated around it, as I did only last Sunday.”
Maharaja Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla was indeed a most charming person to meet, always delighting his guests, and quick to cook a delectable dish at the first opportunity, a very popular figure in India and abroad for much of the first half of the 20th century.