The Maharanis

Published Dec 20, 2015, 12:01 am IST
Updated Mar 26, 2019, 4:20 pm IST
Indira Devi was unhappy with the marital alliance arranged with the Gwalior maharaja.
Maharaj Kumar Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala, formerly of Kashipur | Photograph by Andre Durst, c. 1934. Image courtesy The Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru.
 Maharaj Kumar Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala, formerly of Kashipur | Photograph by Andre Durst, c. 1934. Image courtesy The Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru.

Maharanis: Women of Royal India presents portraits of royal ladies — iconic women with legendary beauty, impeccable taste, distinct personalities and strong voices.

Stories through time have circulated about the Nawab of Junagadh, who spent little money on public projects but squandered a small fortune on the wedding of his favourite dog. Or about the Maharaja of Bharatpur, who annoyed by the comment of a salesman, bought all the Rolls-Royce cars in a London showroom, only to use them as garbage trucks back home.


Yet, the princesses and maharanis from all of the 500 or so principalities and kingdoms of erstwhile Princely India have remained shrouded in mystery, their lives concealed behind the purdah that many of them fought so hard to tear down. Until now. In a first-of-its-kind significant collection of photographs, 148 to be precise, Maharanis: Women of Royal India brings forth portraits of royal women who lived during the last phase of the erstwhile royal families in India —–  from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

The book, edited by Abhishek Poddar and Nathaniel Gaskell, has been published by Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, in association with Tasveer and the Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru. Here’s an opportunity to look at some of the iconic and often unforgotten figures that not only donned chiffon saris and extravagant jewellery but had voices, strong and firm, that were formed under the interplay of Indian and European ideologies.


Apart from a catalogue of photos, the book comprises anecdotal and academic articles by Abhishek Poddar, collector and patron, Nathaniel Gaskell, a writer and a curator, Martand Singh, a textile researcher, curator and conservationist, Amin Jaffer, International director of Asian Art, Christie’s, Shilpa Vijayakrishnan, editor of Tasveer journal and Pramod Kumar K.G., who has published extensively on 19th century photography.

“Photographs give us the world that exists halfway between fact and fiction,” reads the introduction given by Abhishek Poddar and Nathaniel Gaskell. “Although not a comprehensive survey, this collection does include subjects from across the length and breadth of the country. It includes exceptional portraits of some of the most iconic and celebrated women from the country’s modern history — Gayatri Devi, Maharani of Jaipur, Sita Devi, Rani of Kapurthala and Vijaya Raje Scindia, Rajmata of Gwalior.”


There are also examples of “foreign Maharanis” such as Florence Gertude of Patiala, and Maharani Esme Mary Sorrett Fink, popularly known as Molly Fink. Then there are photos of unidentified royals by unknown photographers that make one nostalgic, thus, leading one to conjure up imaginative stories of the lives they might have led.

Shilpa Vijayakrishnan is a research associate and a writer, and has previously been part of research projects on museums and other art-contexts. In the book, she talks about the performance of gender in portraits of royal Indian women — due to the conventional practices it was uncommon for female sitters to be photographed, a fact that the contributors admit might have resulted in loss of documentation of numerous female royals. Her essay sheds light on female royals, known not only for their beauty but for reforms that shook the very foundation of the states they ruled over.


The first Begum of Bhopal, Begum Qudisa, was illiterate and only 18 when she declared her infant daughter Sikander as the ruler and herself as the regent, upon the death of her husband. She devised a political strategy ensuring that allegiance was sworn to her and her daughter by all, since any opposition would imply a hand in assassination of her husband, and, thus treason. Sikander Begum, on the other hand, was a dominant personality, who rode, hunted, played chaigan (a predecessor of polo) and was an expert swordswoman and commander of the Army.


The photos, many that have never been seen before, were collected from the archives of the Museum of Art and Photography, royal collections from across the subcontinent and other institutional and private collections, both in India and abroad, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Amar Mahal Museum and Library in Jammu.

“Over the course of time there are journals brimming with accounts of Maharajas that detail their eccentricities and fascination with wealth. Whereas, the women have always been represented as the wife and the daughter of so-and-so maharaja, many not even chronicled by their names,” says Shilpa, adding, “And that’s how this project came to the light.


Initially, it was meant to be just an exhibition — one that is underway in New Delhi, and will then move to Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, where 69 photos from the book are on display. But as we continued our work over the course of one and a half years, we were overwhelmed with the vast information; such that we realised cannot be contained in an exhibition. The book, followed by its text, targets a different audience, one that can have easy access to the information that’s part of the exhibition. My piece has been reflective of the past work I have done in this field; it’s related to the facts that are often not in the limelight.”


Shilpa’s article highlights the grit and courage of maharanis that certainly had the privileges not extended to the common woman. Highlighted also is the independent streak of maharanis who defied traditions, bore the consequences and despite the struggles stood fast with their choices.

Indira Devi was unhappy with the marital alliance arranged with the Gwalior maharaja, who was not only 20 years her senior but was also the ruler of a state where strict purdah was practised. So when she fell in love with Maharaja of Cooch Behar at 1911 Delhi darbar, she broke her engagement in a manner that caused a major scandal — she wrote directly to the maharaja’s parents without informing her parents. She endured a brief estrangement with her family and married the Maharaja of Cooch Behar in a small ceremony in London.


“Every princely state had its own set of practices and orthodox traditions that women, many times found painful to endure. But the maharanis certainly had access to more opportunities, one that played a huge role in their fight within the system,” says Shilpa. “To a contemporary viewer, the opportunity to view these photographs brings together a series of elements into play that as a whole makes them capable of asking new questions. Theses photos capture the spirit of remarkable women, who were responsible for social and economic development� These photos become beginnings and not just end points.”


In the words of Philip Gourevitch, mentioned in the book, “Photographs cannot tell stories. They can only provide evidence of stories; evidence that is mute and demands interpretation and investigation.” The book makes one want to investigate and look beyond the faces of royalty that one might never see in flesh. And like the purdah itself, the imagination takes wing, lifting the veil within which the stories have for so long been hidden.