We will touch a different topic today, and since we love history this will be a page from an almost forgotten chapter of Indian History. In the days of democracy, monarchy appears a closed and forgotten episode, it of course is, however we are not completely oblivious about the splendor connected with it. If this had been be the case, the palaces, gardens of the famous monarchs would be least visited place by tourists but that is clearly not the thing. Today we will not talk about battles, and the men who fought them, we will not talk about weapons and who used them, but about the ladies who roamed in the majestic corridors of opulence and authority. Today we will talk about the Maharanis, and Princesses of India.
Gayatri Devi (23 May 1919 − 29 July 2009)- We can elegantly begin the discussion with Gayatri Devi formerly the Princess of Coch Behar Royal family. Born to Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur and the Maratha Princess Indira Raje of Baroda she went on to become the most celebrated royalty in India. In 1939 Gayatri Devi married Majarajah Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur who apart from being extremely rich and handsome was a nine handicap Polo player. Although she was the Maharajah’s third wife she firmed her base into the orthodox royal lifestyle of Jaipur Royal family. After independence she contested elections in 1962 and earned a royal victory winning by a whopping 1,75,000 votes! Situation changed quickly and unexpectedly when Indira Gandhi collided with her during the years of Emergency. Mrs. Gandhi had her palace ransacked by tax officials, and threw her into the infamous Tihar jail where she shared bathroom with prison mate Princess Vijayaraje Scindhia (mother to Madhav Rao Scindhia and grandmother to Jyortiraditya Scindhia)! Later Princess Scindhia in her autobiography stated that Gayatri Devi went about the jail with a razor blade concealed in her blouse to confront any mugger who might cross her path. Tortured by filth, dirt and inhuman conditions of Tihar, Gayatri Devi’s condition became so pathetic that she used to say, ‘only my body will be taken out’. Nevertheless her trouble was short-lived, and she left Tihar after serving a term of five months. When Sanjay Gandhi was killed in a plane crash she rang up Indira Gandhi to offer condolences, but the latter refused to take the call. Her amazing beauty earned an international attention when Cecil Beaton photographed her in 1940 followed by her inclusion into the list of ‘ten most beautiful women in the World’ by Vogue Magazine.
Vijaya Raje Scindhia (12 October 1919 – 25 January 2001)- Vijaya Raje was born as Lekhi Devi in Sagar, a small district in the folds of the Vindhya mountain, in Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh in the time of the Raj was known as central state. At the age of 22 she was married to the Maharajah of Gwalior, Jivajirao Scindhia, one of the premier Maharajahs of India. In fact the Maharajh had fallen for this stunning beauty from Sagar and he let know the Royal intention through his ADC, Captain Lagad. In one occasion Lagad saluted Lekhi in Mujra style, that is bending low as if to touch the feet and then lifting the hand to reach the chest for three times. Lekhi Devi protested to this form of salutation saying,’ you mustn’t do mujra to me Captain’. The Captain,’I must do to our Maharani’. As per tradition the name of the bride was changed to Vijaya Raje. She entered in politics in 1962 as a debutant on Congress ticket. However after five years she parted ways with Congress and joined Jan Sangh. During the time of Emergency as said before the two queens of hearts shared a prison cell. However among all riches and splendour her life was not free from the shadow of tragedy. Lakhi Devi’s mother had died when she was just nine, her husband died when he was only 45. Her eldest daughter’s marriage to the Maharajah of Tripura proved unsuccessful and she died at young age. Her father had married a second time and the age difference between her new mother and the daughter was only six years. Her differences with her son Madhav Rao became so nasty that she labelled his son as, ‘the most painful part of my life’ and as a consequence she disinherited him in all ways possible even from the right to cremate his mother’s body!
Indira Devi (19 February 1892 – 6 September 1968)- Mother to Gayatri Devi, Princess Indira Raje of Baroda was engaged to marry an older Madho Rao Scindhia the Maharajah of Gwalior. However the stunning beauty fell in love with Jitendra the handsome Crown Prince of Coch Behar causing much humiliation to the Bardo Royal family. However the engagement to Scindhia cancelled by Indira’s own discretion, her parents followed a middle path and reluctantly agreed for the marriage. Indira Devi married her Prince charming in a hotel in London an occasion none from her family member attended. Jitendra was actually the son of MaharajaNripendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur and Suniti Devi who was the daughter of the Bengali reformer Keshub Chandra Sen. So all throughout this has been an amazing fairy tale, until shortly after the marriage her father-in law died, which was quickly followed by the death of his brother-in-law and more sadly her husband. In 1922 the 30 year old Maharani had become a widow with five young children. Indira followed a lifestyle of her own dividing her time in different time of the year in London, Bombay, Calcutta and of course Coch Behar. Though not being cook she was very particular of the food being served and demanded Bengal, Marathi and European cuisine to be compulsorily present on the table. During her later years she was stuck on the wheelchair because of arthritis and it was in Bombay where she breathed last.
Suniti Devi (1864-1932) – Keshab Chandra Sen had ten children, and I wouldn’t take the trouble to find Suniti Devi’s position in that fairly large family. Keshab Chandra Sen was instrumental in passing a law which lifted the age of marriage for females to 14. This law was passed in 1872 however quite strangely he gave his thirteen year old daughter’s hand to the Prince of Coch Behar. This created uproar in Bengal social circle and opponents grilled Keshab Chandra for being biased. The accusations and criticisms were so harsh that Keshab Chandra fell ill and never quite recovered from it and ultimately died in January 1884. Although Nripendra and Suniti were both progressive young people yet the Maharajah was in all his ways very much English. When the Maharani set all her sons to England and they all returned learned in Greek, French and English and equally ignorant in their mother language. The disheartened Maharani then stressed on practical education much more than classical education in the West. Her distress was further fanned by Lord Curzon’s remark on the boys, “the Cooch Behar boys were too English…’.The Maharajah whose personal expenditure ate up a third of Cooch Behar’s revenue still managed to build a modern capital, graced with roads, bridges, railway, schools and hospitals. The Maharani also took a special pleasure in female education opening up schools and homes for widows. However a thin red line distinguished them as person, that line sadly never wiped out of their lives.
- Sita Devi of Kapurthala- She is best remembered as the best dressed woman of her time and for being fashion trend setter. She was married early at the tender age of 13 with the younger son of Sikh Maharajah Jagatjit Singh. By 1930’s she had become a fashion icon frequently photographed by Cecil Beaton and also by Vogue. Her sarees created quite a sensation in Paris and designer Elsa Schiaparelli in 1935 inspired by her launched a gown collection based on the sarees she wore. In fact her extravagant fashion statement was a big contrast to the poor economic condition in the time of Great Depression. Known as the ‘pearl of India’ in fashion circles in 1920’s and 1930’s she was widely followed by the society pages in London and Paris. Her presence was dazzling that Ziegfeld Folles composed a song for her in 1936 and the lyrics goes-‘Maharanee, even if you were just half as sweet, it would be still be like heav’n to meet Such a gay Maharanee…Paris is at your feet’!
- Sita Devi of Baroda (May 12, 1917 -February 15, 1989)-Sita Devi was born to Maharajah Surya Rao and Maharani Chinnamma. The exquisite beauty married the Zamindar of Vuyyur and had three children with him. However in 1943 she meet Maharajah of Baroda, Pratapsingh Rao Gaekwar at a race course and fell in love with one of the richest man in the World. Since she was already married a team of lawyers suggested that she had to convert to Islam and then reconvert to Hinduism to marry the Maharajah, and guess what the adamant queen did exactly that! However the Royal couple continued to fight legal battles with the British over bigamy. The shocked British officials had to finally accept the marriage but never addressed Sita Devi as, ‘Her Highness’ as per the Royal Style. That was not a matter of great concern to Sita Devi since she was to be the Queen by her riches. So after a fight with the British they choose to settle in Monaco, where a lavish mansion was waiting for them. Cabin loads of treasure from Baroda were transferred to their new mansion, which included the famous Pearl Carpet woven with diamonds, rubies, pearls and emerald, a seven strand necklace of priceless pearls, with the famous Pink Brazilian Star of the South 128.80-carat (25.760 g) diamond and the English Dresden 78.53-carat (15.706 g) diamond.
Her gaudy spending spree was partly sponsored by her husband’s large interest free loans and partly over her undisputed access to the Baroda state treasury. She recklessly sold, customized the jewels at will, which enraged even Sardar Patel, the iron man eventually called on Gaekwar and ordered the return of the jewels and the money. But it was too late the priceless treasury had been emptied and the jewels were recast in New York and Paris branches of Van Cleef and Arpels. Pratap Singh died in exile, Sita Devi continued to live in Paris and Monaco with her son Princie. Princie fell for drugs and debauchery and ultimately committed suicide in 1985. The last years of Sita Devi was spent by escaping from tax authorities from various countries.
- Sajida Sultan (August 4, 1915 – September 5, 1995)- Sajida Sultana was the second daughter of the last Nawab of Bhopal. Sajida was married to the eight Nawab of Pataudi, Iftikar Ali Khan. They had a son Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi who eventually became the captain of the Indian cricket team, he was also the youngest cricketer to captain India. Her husband was also a keen cricketer he as well captained India on tour to England in 1946. Although Pataudi Jr has played more first class matches than his father Iftikar, the father averaged (48 in 127 matches) better than son (33 in 310 tests). Sajida inherited all the property following the death of her husband and interestingly in 1961 she became the ‘Begum of Bhopal’. She lived mainly in Delhi and occasionally paying visits to Bhopal with her son Mansoor Ali Khan.