Star-Struck by the Far Pavilions; the Creators of a Lavish New Musical Based on M.M.Kaye's Novel Set in the Days of the Raj Tell Sarah Lucas How the Colours and Culture of Rajasthan Inspired Them

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Byline: SARAH LUCAS

WHEN Captain Corelli's Mandolin became a bestseller, everyone wanted to take their holidays on the Greek island of Kefalonia, where the novel was set.

So could The Far Pavilions do the same for Rajasthan?

The book evokes the romance and intrigue of India at the height of the Raj and is about to attract a new generation of fans through a lavish [pounds sterling]4 million West End stage production.

Described as the Gone With The Wind of the North West frontier, it's a breathless story of forbidden love between a British officer and an Indian princess set against a beautiful backdrop of snowy Himalayan peaks, mysterious palaces and exotic wildlife.

And when the creators of the stage production travelled to the region, to help themselves visualise author M.M. Kaye's story, they were bewitched.

Producer Michael Ward said: 'I was totally and utterly blown away.' The Far Pavilions, set against the background of the Sepoy Uprisings of 1857, was Molly Kaye's lifework - begun in 1963 and published 15 years later. No author was better suited to evoke the romance of India, the intrigue of the Rajput courts and the overconfidence of the British Empire at that time. She was born in India in 1908. Her grandfather, father and husband served the Raj and she travelled widely.

RAJASTHAN, in Northern India, is a state of warrior princes and palaces and is regarded as the home of the traditional Maharajas.

The Far Pavilions, the snow peaks of the title, are in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and are overlooked by Kaye's imaginary Palace of the Winds, Gulkote.

To the south east of Gulkote lie the Himalayas. Weaving fragments of true stories from the Raj into the landscapes she knew so well, she conjured up towns and palaces almost more convincing than the real thing.

Michael Ward, raised on a tea estate in Assam, is as passionate about India as Molly was. He knew her for the last six years of her life (she died in January 2004) and started the research for his version of Pavilions in the same place she had done for the book - Udaipur, in south Rajasthan.

He said: 'I met the Maharana [ruler], Arvind Singh Mewar, the 76th descendant in the world's oldest dynasty. He remembers Molly interviewing his mother in the palace there.

'I was absolutely, totally and utterly blown away by the epic scale of the landscape. Deserts suddenly give way to wonderful lakes. The rulers always had to build a lake, a temple and a palace or they hadn't left their mark; so you have these wonderful buildings in Udaipur and up in Jaisalmer.' To get the landscape, architecture, people and colours under their skin, show director Gale Edwards, set designer Lez Brotherton and leading man Hadley Fraser were sent to Rajasthan. Hadley, who starred as Marius in Les Miserables, had never been to India before. He said: 'I had no idea what to expect other than what I'd seen on Merchant Ivory films. I didn't expect it to be like that nowadays but it was. You don't feel it's changed for eons.'

Molly described 'little lost villages, where life pursued a slow, centuriesold course' and Hadley found the tradition continuing.

'I think Udaipur, the city itself, lives up to that. Though the former Maharajah's palace is now a luxury hotel, the countryside itself is dusty and barren in places. There's a very liveable history. On a tour of a city palace, your guide tells you about the Maharanas and their harems and you can visualise it all.' Hadley's hotel in Udaipur felt to him like a hangover from the Raj. 'I could just picture somebody in full military dress, or a Victorian English woman striding through with Indian servants in her wake.'

Rajasthan can offer visitors sumptuous imperial suites with fountains in the bedrooms but also budget accommodation in shooting lodges, where you can watch the wildlife drinking from waterholes at dawn. …