When I went to see Abhijeet Singh in November 2011, I knew just one thing about him—he had worn a coat made of gold to his grandiose winter wedding in December 2010. The coat (called an achkan)—a feat in couture—was designed by his maternal uncle and one of India’s best-known designers- Raghavendra Rathore. I was there to find out more- How would gold be used in a coat? How would such a coat be made? Why would someone want to commission it? In a country of impossible contradictions what does wearing a golden achkan say about a person, beyond what can be inferred by its cost alone? The answer to the last question lies in how Abhijeet Singh and Raghavendra Rathore’s ancestral past is reflected in their present lives, and how they use it to shape their futures. My quest to understand the meaning of the Golden Achkan took me to a place where design celebrates the insatiable desire of haute couture to create exquisite, exclusive perfection, and becomes uniquely Indian by crossing over into the realm of Rajput legacy.
Sitting across the table with 39-year-old Singh, it was hard to relate my image of a man in a gaudy golden coat with him. He is coy and laidback with impeccable manners and a very bright smile. Simply clad in a smart, casual navy blue T-shirt and jeans, he tells me that he is particular about what he wears but not brand conscious. He is just as particular about time he says, pausing the conversation while the waiter pours our coffees. His preferred coffee shop—Emperor’s Lounge is dignified and understated. It is located in The Taj Mahal Hotel that prides itself on its address—Number One Mansingh Road- a road that runs through the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, the seat of Indian democracy but ironically, is named after Maharaja Mansingh of Jaipur—a dynasty related to Abhijeet’s forefathers by marriage.
The story of Abhijeet Singh’s ancestry runs alongside modern Indian history. His paternal grandfather, Tribhuvan Prasad Singh, was an ICS officer, India’s first finance secretary, and a landlord from the Kachhawa clan of the Rajputs. During the heydays of the freedom struggle, Tribhuvan’s home in Bihar hosted leaders like Gandhi and Nehru. Rumour has it that his landholdings were so prodigious that the Urban Land (Ceiling and Regulation) Act, 1976 was enacted with specifically him in mind. Whether or not the rumour is true Abhijeet’s father, Nand Kishore Singh had to bring up his children in a place where being from a noble family did not automatically entitle you to privilege any more. He embraced the new ways of a young democracy and went on to carve a place for himself in it. a postgraduate from the prestigious Delhi School of Economics and a teacher of Economics at the equally prestigious St Stephen’s College, He joined the Indian Administrative Service in 1964 and has ever since held some of the most powerful public posts in the country as a Member of Parliament, a finance secretary of the Planning Commission and an Officer on Special Duty at the Prime Minister’s Office. He has also distinguished himself as an economist and is very well connected in the corporate sector.
Abhijeet’s maternal grandfather, Maharaj Hari Singh, from the Rathore dynasty of Rajputs, was the brother of Maharaja Hanwant Singh, who was the ruler of the princely state of Jodhpur at the time of its accession to the Indian Union in 1947. In 1952, dissatisfied with the state of the Indian Union, he contested the general elections, dying in a mysterious plane crash on the very day he was declared the winner. Hari Singh died young, too, but he lived a full life, one of the highlights of which was his wedding in 1947—an affair as grand as Rajputana had ever seen, recorded at length in National Geographic. On this momentous day, Hari Singh wore a coat made of gold.
Decades later, in November 2010, his grandson commissioned a wedding coat just like the one worn by Hari Singh.” But while Hari Singh’s golden coat had blended seamlessly with the pageantry of his era, the meaning of Abhijeet Singh’s anachronistic achkan has been complicated by all that has since come to pass.
In the year that Hari Singh was married, the amalgam of 565 princely states and British India made way for a federal democracy based on socialist ideals. Barely a quarter-century later, the last ceremonial import of subcontinental royalty ended when monarchical titles and privy purses were abolished in 1971.
Abhijeet Singh, like his parents, married at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, the spectacular, Art Deco, gold-hued, layered-sandstone, 26-acre residential premises of the erstwhile rulers of Jodhpur, which is, with its 347 rooms, one of the world’s largest private homes. A part of the palace was converted to a hotel in 1972 to raise money for its gargantuan maintenance. Unlike when Singh’s parents were married with exclusivist pomp, 64 rooms and suites can today be rented out by, and to, anybody who is willing to pay a nightly minimum of `28,000 for a ‘Historical’ single-bed to `660,000 for a ‘Grand Presidential’ single-bed.
“The crucial difference between then and now is that now everyone fancies a king’s lifestyle,” says Singh, “and has access to it.”
Despite the faint undertone of nostalgia in this comment, it is apparent that Singh is firmly rooted in the present. The St Stephen’s College and Columbia University alumnus is a successful first-generation entrepreneur. Having begun his career as an investment banker with Merrill lynch and goldman sachs he went on to start a firm trading in chemicals and gradually expanded his business to include the manufacture of automobile parts. He has recently invested in the education sector by building private schools.
When Singh speaks of his lineage, he betrays no air of superiority, only a sense of belonging. His idea of his legacy is intensely personal, even reserved. He is as reluctant to discuss the values he grew up with as he is to name the cars he has in his collection. Why, then, would he choose to get married in a coat so ostentatious? I think of his observation above as soon as I ask myself this question. As Singh pointed out, the meaning of India’s royal past has been reduced to an aspirational lifestyle. When almost everybody wants to live like royalty, how does the actual blue-blood of yore conjure up its own style? Moreover—to borrow from Oscar Wilde—how do you create a thing of true worth in a world populated by cynics “who [know] the price of everything and the value of nothing”? Singh’s quest led him to his maternal uncle and designer Raghavendra Rathore from the dynasty of the former rulers of Jodhpur- who has inherited the title of ‘Maharaj’ from his father but does now use it—and he enthusiastically agreed to craft the precious achkan.
Ancient Rajput custom dictates that the material for the groom’s attire is to be gifted by the bride’s family. Supportive of Abhijeet’s desire to pay homage to his grandfather’s legacy at his wedding, his future in-laws from the erstwhile kingdom of Idar (now Himmatnagar in Gujarat) dug out an heirloom: an 80-year-old length of cloth made of gold thread.
Raghavendra Rathore was faced with the tricky task of working with this old, fragile, valuable material. Reinforcing it was the first of many challenges. He sought out artisans from Varanasi whose ancestors had spun the cloth for Hari Singh and entrusted them with the task of strengthening the weave. But the expertise had apparently dissipated over the years. “The result was ghastly,” says Rathore’s, and he had to begin work anew. This time, he got artisans from Jaipur and Old Delhi to work on building heft into the brocade—adding new gold-thread weave to the old; all the while keeping a close watch to ensure that the tones match. The paan, or motif, and the borders were embroidered separately and then appliquéd on to the finished brocade. Rathore replicated the entire process of embroidery to ensure that the final patterns were nothing short of perfect. Once the gold fringes had been added to finish and tack the paan and borders, the achkan was ready to be cut and stitched into shape.
Greater challenges awaited him at this final stage. Rathore had to modernise not just the look and finish of the achkan but also its fit. Hari Singh’s original was worn tight, almost like a second skin, in keeping with the trend of the times. A fit like that could only be carried off by a man with a bevy of attendants to run his errands while he maintained a perpendicular propriety. Singh’s achkan, on the other hand, had to be tailored to his body shape, with ample room at the back for movement. But so difficult was this material that despite precise measurements, it ended up looking like a gladiator’s costume in the first fitting.
The cut apart, Rathore also worked on making the achkan as comfortable as possible—with Singh’s feedback during trials. Several versions later, the achkan finally emerged as Singh and Rathore wanted it.
Not many clients would volunteer to dress in a fabric like this, explains Rathore. But Singh was quite literally up to shouldering the weight of his legacy. Weighing over eight kilos, the achkan was not the easiest thing to wear. Rathore could not help being a tad nervous. Engineering this jacket had been nothing short of a nail-biting adventure—coordinating the whole process over different cities and workshops, guarding the precious raw material against theft and destruction, and racing to tie it all up on time.
But the trial wasn’t over yet. Getting on and off a horse was just one of the many tricky rituals the groom had to perform gracefully in his suit on the wedding day. Rathore watched over him carefully. Even as the man of the moment slipped into a vintage Buick beige-and-maroon convertible that was the pace car for his baraat—wedding party, Rathore leapt to pull the achkan from under Singh to prevent it from stretching and possibly tearing on the awkwardly designed seats.
From its conceptualisation to this timely save, the achkan fulfilled every possible meaning of ‘haute couture’—its creation setting a new benchmark for high-end bespoke made-to-order designer wear. But as with Singh, Rathore’s idea of this coat was larger than the straightforward idea of haute couture.
Rathore is a serious, handsome man—polite, but withdrawn. Style was always an integral part of Rathore’s sense of his legacy. His great-grandfather- Maharaja Sardar Singh, who ruled Jodhpur from 1895 to 1911, had an out-of-the-box personal style that was widely emulated. He re-designed the way the turban was worn, with the longer tail and more distinct and neat pleats in the front- a distinct style now associated with Jodhpur. The strikingly handsome king drew his sartorial inspirations from literature in Persian- the court language of the state in those days. Rathore grew up on stories of Sardar Singh, and was witness to his extended family’s indefatigable love of design—architectural, scientific and personal. But the 44-year-old designer was made aware very early in life that he would inhabit a world vastly different from the one he was born into. In the early 1970s, after the Indian government controversially abolished royal titles and privy purses, the extended nobility felt the heat of a new world that was forging itself rather forcefully. It was in those trying times that Rathore’s father, Maharaj Swaroop Singh, who he speaks of a lot, made him see that he would have to find his own way. On a visit to a Coca-Cola factory, he drew his son’s attention to how packaging and branding could turn a dark, vile-looking, fizzy liquid into an object of desire. It was an observation that Rathore has held on to. Swaroop Singh also encouraged his son to stay in touch with village life in India, even after the latter moved to Parsons School of Design in New York. There, Rathore led a very different life to the one he was used to. He did the sort of odd jobs that might well be considered below par for nobility.
New York shaped Rathore’s idea of fashion. But it was at the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, where his ancestors had lived for centuries, that Rathore hosted his first solo show. This show set the tone for the future of his brand. Soon, Rathore would bring the quintessential Jodhpur attire of bandhgalas and breeches to the ramp. But as in life, so in design, Rathore has always interpreted tradition in his own way. His signature style has neither subscribed to the gilded aesthetic lazily associated with Indian royalty, nor the bright colour palate ascribed to Rajasthan. Yet he has never stopped looking for ways to bring back weaves, cuts and fabrics from pre-Independence India. One could have expected that when Rathore turned to gold it would be for a reason.
Indian design is almost as difficult to define as the idea of India. Innumerable influences have merged seamlessly to form its complex and yet uncharted DNA within which lies the invaluable blueprint of Indian history. The contribution of Indian royalty to the evolution of both history and design is by no means paltry. From the humble sari to not-so-humble jewellery—royals provided inspiration for dressing at home and popularised Indian designs abroad. The passion behind it was lost to the winds that swept away their political power and economic stability. Many of these royals languished—some rather pathetically, having failed to reinvent their lives. Abhijeet Singh and Raghavendra Rathore are among those who made it through unscathed. Both of them speak of the future and its boundless promises with infectious enthusiasm, but they also speak of rebuilding the severed bridge that can connect it to the bequest of the past.
The Golden Achkan is a glittering beacon of this dream. The methodology of its making, now perfected, is being applied to clothes and products that Rathore’s design house is creating. By modernising a vintage design, Rathore is not just keeping his past alive but also seeking to make it available to designers and historians of the future.
For Singh, the significance of this achkan is, largely, personal. His eyes glaze over with emotion when he talks about it. It is a symbol of familial intimacy, a marker of his identity and a tangible piece of his past. Singh believes that the creation of legacy is the hallmark of success and he is looking forward to handing over the achkan to his children one day, along with the stories that come with it. What his detractors might make of its ostentation does not bother him.
He says that it is impossible for him to think of the Golden Achkan as a monetary investment. In fact, neither he nor Rathore can tell me how much the coat is worth; they say that there is no record of how much was spent on it, given that both the material and the design services were inhouse, so to speak.
Abhijeet is now focused on preserving the golden achkan. His grandfather’s jacket was destroyed over time and he is determined that his will not meet the same fate. “If it were to catch fire,” he says, “all that would remain is a heap of gold.”
(Originally appears in Caravan Style and Living)