Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)
MAHARANIS, PRINCELY INDIA The lives and times of three generations of India princesses. Edited by Peter Bance,160 pp. Sutton , Pound 18..99.
Maharani Gayatari Devi, voted by Vogue as one of the ten most beautiful Women in the world, has always been called Ayesha, the name of the captivating goddess in Rider Haggard's She, the book that her mother, the tempestuous Maharani Indira of Cooch Behar, was engrossed in when her daughter was born. Such inherent ambiguity of existence is typical of the dazzling rulers of princely India. Distanced by their wealth and status from their Indian subjects on the one hand; they could reach only the periphery of the British ruling class. Bound to the colonial power by an uneasy loyalty, they preferred to think of themselves as co-rulers of India; the British, however, saw them as feudal lords who must ultimately pay homage to the Crown. Their children went to Eton and Harrow, their summers were spent at English country houses or in Swiss mountain resorts, their clothes and perfumes were bought in Paris, and yet, like the rest of India, they submitted reluctantly to the colonial yoke and yearned for independence. The difference was that for them independence would mean not a new dawn but the end of their rule. Egalitarian, democratic India would not suffer royalty except in the most nominal sense and with increasing impatience. Even as they sought new roles in independent India, princely rulers increasingly became aware of the passing of an era, as palaces became hotels, privy purses vanished and the life of privilege became an uncomfortable anachronism.
While it lasted, princely India had a pomp and glory quite unmatched in modern history. These bejewelled maharajahs and maharanis charmed the world's rich and famous, from Queen Victoria to Jackie Kennedy, with their grace and splendour. Lucy Moore's Maharanis, with its focus on four princesses from the Baroda and Coach Behar families, chronicles an idyllic world of polo tournaments, shikar parties and shopping sprees. Among the dazzle, Moore seems to be seeking a link between the four women she describes, in the fact that they were all ahead of their times, either marrying against their parent’s wishes or initiating schemes for women’s welfare. The book does not touch the troubled shadows that tarnish the splendour- princely rivalries, anxiety about their standing with the British, the claustrophobia of the zenana (the Hindu equivalent of the harem), recalcitrant children, heartbreak and alcoholism. There is valiant attempt to encompass within the narrative the history of India’s struggle for freedom and the politics of modern India. Unfortunately, Moore is not so-footed on political history as she is on princely lore. Mahatma Gandhi was not a “Hindu holy man”, the Sikhs, as well as the Hindus and Muslims, suffered heavily in the trauma of Partition, and Kashmir was not “annexed” by the India through an “invasion” but acceded to the Indian Union through an Instrument of Accession.
Maharanis begins with an elaborate description of the 1911 Coronation Durbar, a glittering celebration of colonial India's power not only in the areas under the British flag but also over the states ruled by those who were known as native princes. The Durbar was an occasion, among the hastily planted lawns and rose bushes brought from England, for the Viceroy to bring before his King and Queen, as bowing subjects, some of the richest and proudest men in the world. While the British rulers and their guests played billiards in powder blue tents, the native princes chafed even as they paid homage in all their ceremonial glory to George V and his Queen. They included the Gaekwad of Baroda, the Scindia of Gwalior and the Nizam of Hyderabad, but there was one who was missing, whose kingdom, at its peak, would have outshone, the rest. The Maharajah of Punjab was not among the lieges; his kingdom had been annexed long before and the last Maharajah; Duleep Singh, a boy of eleven, had been taken under the British wing, encouraged through duplicity disguised as earnest righteousness to convert to Christianity and doomed, by an insecure colonial power, to spend his life in exile, yearning for justice and the chance to go home. When the Coronation Durbar took place, the missing prince lay buried in a Suffolk churchyard beside his Maharani, Bamba. and his youngest son Edward. His two older sons were leading inconsequential lives; for them the politics of Imperial India were all but over.
The tragic story of this family is brought to sepia-tinted life by Peter Bance in The Duleep Sillghs: The photographic album of Queen Victoria's Maharajah. The images cover a wide range - from line drawings from the midnineteenth-century Illustrated LOlldoll News to the photographs of Du1eep Singh's daughters in the mid-twentieth. The images., of the Maharajah include the earliest paintings, in Lahore in the days before Dalhousie annexed the kingdom, and photographs and paintings of him as Queen Victoria's pet prince. Here is the famously flattering portrait painted by Winterhalter of Du\eep Singh at Buckingham Palace; while the painting was being done, Victoria placed in Du1eep Singh's hand the Kohinoor diamond, only to have it returned to her by a moved and ironic Du1eep. Here is the Maharajah, photographed in his dashing youth and later as a portly figure among his sporting friends, relaxing after extravagant shooting parties in the English countryside. Enriched by the detailed captions, the illustrations chronicle the movements of the Maharajah from Lahore to London and the elegant country house at Elveden.
Bance's real contribution is to continue the story beyond the death of Duleep Singh, following the lives of his three daughters and two sons by Bamba. The eldest son, Victor, comes across as a somewhat unsuccessful military officer given to gathering debts, playing in the casinos of Europe with his stepmother, Ada, even while his father lay dying in' Paris. The second son, Frederick, the most photographed member of the family, can be seen as a gentle country squire, passionately following Norfolk art and participating in a non-military capacity in the First World War. The eldest daughter, Bamba, inherited at least some of her father's anger over the loss of his heritage; the beautiful Catherine formed an intimate relationship with her, German governess; and the youngest, Sophie, became an active member of the Suffragette movement. There are no photographs, however, of Ada, Duleep Singh's second wife, the chambermaid turned queen, and hardly any of her two daughters, lrene and Pauline. Ada remains a mysterious presence in the story, gathering more scorn than awe, and a few photographs of her would have gone a long way in completing the saga of Maharajah Duleep Singh. All eight of his children died without issue, ending with Princess Bamba's death in Lahore in 1956, the end of the line, of the last King of the Sikhs. Peter Bance's book provides at least one oblique, partial but eloquent clue to this mystery: Queen Victoria summoned Lady Anne, the wife of Victor Duleep Singh, to Court and ordered her to take a vow that she would never have children. Lady Anne faithfully kept that vow.