In a leafy 1950s neighborhood with garden bungalows in symmetrical plazas next to Delhi Zoo, the home of Priti Pratap Singh, princess of the former Kuchaman Kingdom, has retained its original whitewashed form. But within its creaking iron gate is a realm of fantasy, a visionary creation of the unknown housed in a rather expected-looking shell. When she first inherited the house as a young mother in the 1970s, she found the conventional front yard “too boring” and started taking it apart to transform it into an artful magical wilderness.
At its center is a benign granite sculpture of Nandi, the bull vahana of the Hindu god Shiva. It is nestled between red sandstone pavement and parterres of lush foliage, which are intersected by a narrow channel where water bubbles from stone spheres. The porch is shaded by a vine-laden bamboo scaffold, made denser thanks to bunches of grapes. With the sound and sight of the city obliterated, you could be anywhere—a corner of Tuscany, perhaps, or a secluded garden—except in the heart of a teeming metropolis.
The interiors, with their towering 16-foot ceilings, effortlessly intensify the theme and fittings of royal Rajasthan, the Indian state in which the house is located. The region is most evident in a dazzling display of antique textiles – an embroidered covering for an elephant’s howdah on one wall, a fine block-printed kalamkari on another, and a painted one Nathdwara pichwai above the fireplace. Amid the gleaming copper and silver are elaborate decorations of Priti’s own handiwork: a corner of the living room is converted into a tent Baithak (lounge corner) in saffron side framed in carved architraves of haveli doors and, in her bedroom, simple closets are covered in crewel-embroidered aqua silk.
This is a house of memories, or as she evocatively puts it, ‘memories intertwined with history’. Emblems of personal, family and work history – as her living room doubles as a showroom for her famous quilts – make up a rich tapestry, from sepia photographs of ancient courtly ceremonies to modernist portraits donated to her by Cuba’s leading artist René Portocarrero, then she lived there.
Priti Singh’s house is a palimpsest of her varied life. Her father was an Oxford-educated ruler of Kuchaman, a town between Jaipur and Jodhpur, known for its imposing 16th-century frescoed fort and palace – “one of those rare places,” writes historian Mitchell Crites, “where when you get close your eyes and listen, you can still evoke the unabashed delights of a royal court.” Her mother came from a feudal family talukdars near Lucknow. Educated in Jaipur and Lucknow, Priti absorbed the stylized confluence of two vanishing worlds. She later married a Goan politician who was ambassador to Havana.
Her lasting memories of life in Kuchaman include the quilts her mother had each year remade and covered with sumptuous satin. “I vividly remember recruiting freshly painted bandhani and leheriya fabrics that are drying on terraces.” Decades later, in 1989, in an effort to support unemployed village artisans, she revived the intricate art of quilting by setting up a small workshop in a thatched shed in her yard.