The art deco interiors of the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur – in the heart of Rajasthan – are an unexpected treasure. I was fortunate enough to visit on my last trip to India and can attest to the enduring beauty of this palace.
Built between 1928 and 1943, it was the last great palace built in Imperial India by Maharaja Umaid Singh Ji. He undertook this grand adventure to help alleviate the poverty of his people by giving them jobs in a time of famine and drought exasperated by the global effects of the Great Depression. He also used the palace to give vision to his idea of the “new India” – a country awakening and ready to stand among the great modern nations of the world. While currently still the home to the Jodhpur Royal family (and thus one of the largest private homes in the world), part of the palace has been opened as a hotel allowing modern visitors to partake in the grand hospitality of Rajasthan.
Designed by English architect Henry Lanchester in the popular Indo-Saracenic style, the yellow sandstone exterior of the palace shimmers in the Indian sunlight as a golden beacon rising above 26 acres of landscaped gardens. Rows of columns punctuated by vertical towers that pierce the sky give the Umaid Bhawan Palace great presence and thrust it upwards from this oasis amongst the desert plain. The central cupola rises 105 feet to center the whole structure like a magnificent wedding cake. 347 rooms radiate outward from the central hall under the cupola. Taking inspiration from the latest trends sweeping Parisian design in the 30s and 40s, the Maharaja chose elegant and avant-garde Art Deco interiors befitting this regal palace.
One of the things I particularly love about Umaid Bhawan Palace is that even while surrounded by opulent Art Deco interiors, you never forget that you are actually in the middle of India: peacocks strut about the verdant grounds; hunting trophies of royal tiger hunts adorn the walls of public spaces; and everything is just a little bigger than you would find in Europe or America. And a palace built to entertain discerning guests appears fittingly enough an easy conversion to a luxury hotel. Restaurants and bars cater to visitors every culinary desire, while libraries, lounges and a museum of artifacts from the Maharaja’s personal collection allow for mental stimulation. Swimming pools (both indoor and outdoor), marble squash courts, tennis courts, a croquet lawn, yoga studios and even fully equipped stables provide a plethora of physical activity.
When you have finished a day filled with activities, you can retreat to one of Umaid Bhawan Palace’s Art Deco interiors. While there is always a tendency to go a bit over the top in India, the furnishings of the rooms is remarkably restrained and elegant and is a great source of inspiration. I noted the wide reeded crown molding used in the bedrooms that has a nice Deco feel. They have run the molding around the entire room recessing the curtains behind so as to give a unified look to the space. Furniture has sleek lines and graceful curves so typical of the 1930s with low-slung upholstered chairs and sofas interspersed with ebony and mahogany tables and cabinets. The bath in the Maharani Suite is absolutely sublime with its stunning black marble walls and the marble bath (hewn from a single stone) that is framed by gilt arches a la the stage at Radio City Music Hall.
Umaid Bhawan Palace is a great example of melding a historic house with a modern hotel. I always try to find places with character when I visit a city, be it one of the classic grande dame hotels, a fully converted palace or house like this. And stunning Art Deco interiors unearthed in the middle of the chaos of 21st century India? What could be more interesting or different from your colorful tourist routine in Rajasthan!
Richard Rabel is a New York Interior Designer and Principal at Richard Rabel Interiors+ Art Ltd., a studio offering residential design, decorating and art advising.
image credits: art deco interiors: Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur