The word "maharaja" conjures up the image of a turbaned, bejewelled ruler, fabulously wealthy, fabulously powerful. It's no longer true. Not overtly. Maharajas are still wealthy, but they no longer rule kingdoms. They have not become entirely unpolitical, though.
Earlier this year I accompanied curators from the Victoria and Albert Museum to India to see some of the treasures of the maharajas which will be leaving the country for the first time for an exhibition at the V&A next month. The maharajas of northern India have largely turned their palaces into hotels (Liz Hurley got married in a splendid one, Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur), but they remain powerful administrators, or at least powerful businessmen, in their regions.
Five members of royal families stood for parliament in the elections in the Spring. I met Maharaja Jyotiraditya Scindia of Gwalior who has restyled himself as Mr Scindia and was, when we spoke, a Congress politician and minister for communications and IT (latterly he became minister for commerce) in the Indian government. The issue of call centres in India for British companies is an interesting one in Britain, I mentioned to him. Does he intend to have more? "Certainly. Why shouldn't we?" he replied. "The accent is a bit of a problem, but training will put that right."
They are focused, determined people, the maharajas. Over drinks, they would discuss with us in somewhat maudlin fashion the days, still painful to them, when Mrs Gandhi – during her socialist premiership in the Seventies – curtailed their power and their wealth.
Take another plain Mr, Mr Arvind Singh, the Maharaja of Udaipur. A plain Mr, though I heard him addressed as Your Royal Highness and was present at an astonishingly elaborate and colourful ceremony on the eve of the festival of Holi, where he conducted the religious rights, just as his ancestors had since the 8th century, in this, the world's oldest surviving dynasty. Leading a procession of horses, drummers and a marching band, the maharaja descended from his coach in silk robes weighed down by jewels, an ornate knife and a sword. Protected by a colourful parasol held by a retainer, he conducted prayers, scattered holy water about and finally put a torch to a bonfire of straw to signify the start of the festival before hosting an open-air dinner for his several hundred guests.
Chatting afterwards, Mr Singh, who has now trained in hotel management, said: "I am not a king – what does that mean? – but I am the head of a dynasty. I am the head of my clan. The connection with my people goes very deep and I have considerable responsibilities. Certainly, it is not always comfortable. There are still politicians and people who accuse us of being friends of the British and friends of Mountbatten. They haven't forgotten or forgiven us."
In 1971, under Indira Gandhi, the maharajas became commoners and were made to pay large taxes on their lands. Politics, commerce and hotels are what the 100 or so surviving maharajas have turned to.
But as visitors to the V&A next month will see, there is still wealth in abundance. There is the odd memorable item that I wish the V&A had got, but didn't. At Mr Scindia's palace in Gwalior was a vast banqueting table with a diamond-studded train set on it for ferrying the port and wine to diners. It would have been an enticement to thousands of children to visit the V&A. But there are other enticements.
Besides a host of thrones, howdahs, palanquins, gem-encrusted weapons, court paintings and fine jewellery, there is one quite startling object – or, at least, the design for it which will be in the exhibition. In 1882, Saddiq Muhammed Khan Abassi IV, the Nawab of Bahawalpur, ordered a silver-encrusted bed.
The design was sent to Christofle in Paris calling for a bed of "dark wood decorated with applied sterling with gilded parts, monograms and arms, ornamented with four life-size bronze figures (of naked females) painted in flesh colour with natural hair, movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horse tails".
Some 290kg of silver was needed to decorate the bed. The four naked figures were European, representing women of France, Spain, Italy and Greece, each with a different skin-tone and hair colour. Through ingenious mechanics linked to the mattress, the Nawab was able to set the figures in motion so that they fanned him while winking at him, against a 30-minute cycle of music from Gounod's Faust generated by a music box built into the bed.
Another object on show in the UK for the first time, and only slightly less titillating, is the Patiala Necklace, part of the largest single commission that the Paris jeweller Cartier has ever executed. Completed in 1928, this piece of ceremonial jewellery originally contained 2930 diamonds and weighed almost a thousand carats.
The exhibition will begin with a recreation of an Indian royal procession with a life-sized model elephant adorned with animal jewellery, textiles and trappings, and surmounted with a silver howdah. Other rooms will include three thrones, gem-encrusted weapons, a Rolls Royce, saris designed by leading French couture houses – the maharajas' patronage of European firms resulted in luxurious commissions – among the court paintings, jewellery and photographs of the maharajas and their wives by Cecil Beaton and Man Ray. But among the more interesting items will be the displays exploring ideas of kingship in India and the role of the maharaja as religious leader, military and political ruler and artistic patron. Among the items will be a palanquin from Jodhpur used to carry the Maharaja's wife. It provides a glimpse into the secluded lives of the ladies of the court. The interior of the palanquin contains original framed prints and cushions.
But beyond the luxury and the commissions for the opulent and extravagant jewellery and cars, the maharajas were also patrons of the emerging European avant-garde. On display will be modernist furniture commissioned by the Maharaja of Indore for his palace in the 1930s and architectural designs for an art-deco style residence commissioned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur.
It's been quite an Indian summer at our national museums. The British Museum has had a hugely successful exhibition from India. Now this one adds a further dimension to understanding the art, design and lifestyles of the country's erstwhile rulers.
Anna Jackson, the V&A curator behind the exhibition, says: "The important role played by India's kings in the political, social and cultural history of the subcontinent, from the early 18th century to the mid 20th, has often been marginalised by more dominant narratives of the Mughal and British empires. This exhibition seeks to redress the balance by re-examining the world of the maharaja, particularly through the extraordinarily rich culture of kingship."
Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000) from 10 October to 17 January. It is sponsored by Ernst & Young
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