Unlike the popular books on Indian kings and queens penned by the likes of Diwan Jarmani Dass, spiced up with salacious details about the private lives of the royals in Maharaja and Maharani, the new writers of this genre are more concerned about the person behind the trappings of power and glamour. The military training of the princes, their administrative skills, style of governance, their role in global political alliances, ties with family and friends and the lifestyle of the royals are getting more attention. These writers re-examine the lives of the erstwhile nobles, under the constraints of the colonial rule. Not bereft of the royal idiosyncrasies and adventures, they also document sociological changes brought about by the loss of esteem of the royals with the formation of a democratic republic.
For example, the royals of Punjab felt helpless while witnessing the plight of their subjects during Partition in 1947. Maharajas of the three major states of Punjab — Kapurthala, Patiala and Nabha — had absolutely no say in the political matters once they acceded to the republic of India. The erstwhile riyasats were forced to see complete eviction of the Muslims from this side of the Punjab, under the new secular, democratic republic, which left a permanent scar on the cultural life of the newly carved state of north Punjab.
It is perhaps due to the need to re-build Punjab after the horrors of Partition that the unique features of Punjab’s erstwhile states could not feature on the tourist map of India, unlike Rajasthan. Since 2000, sporadic efforts have been made to re-discover the glory of its kings, palaces and forts.
Prince Patron and Patriarch Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, by Brigadier HH Sukhjit Singh and Cynthia Meera Frederick, published by Roli Books, is one such effort. It sketches the life of the last Maharaja of Kapurthala Jagatjit Singh (1872-1949), as a man who straddled two civilisations and struggled to maintain his identity as a Sikh ruler. A much-travelled man for his times, who was known as 'Roi Francophile', built palaces in Kapurthala fashioned after the Palace of Versailles and a chateau in Mussoorie. All buildings built under his reign are a unique specimen of the coming-together of the East and West. His love for everything French surpassed architecture; Randhir College in Kapurthala offered courses in French, not available at the time in the Panjab University, Lahore. His chief minister, Abdul Hamid, was sent to Sorbonne to learn French, and most of his staff and his family could speak the language.
His grandson, Brigadier HH Sukhjit Singh, stresses the last Maharaja of Kapurthala’s love for France should not be viewed as a political statement, against the English monarchy. The writer takes great pains to establish the loyal stance of the Maharaja for the British, which seems uncalled for in a book that attempts to cover several aspects of his personality that make him stand apart from his contemporaries. The fact that Maharaja Jagatjit Singh was a modern man, who kept his choices open — in all respects — is not missed.
His reign was witness to the dawn of the Victorian era, two world wars and the twilight of India’s independence from its colonial rulers, to the merger of India’s princely states. A man of the world, he lived like a true king, building his own palace in Paris. Cities of the West influenced him; he commissioned a report for the modernisation of Kapurthala to Patrick Geddes and later to Lutyen. In 1918, he made primary education compulsory, introduced co-education in schools and worked towards providing medical and sanitation facilities. For the sake of 60 percent of his Muslim subjects, he constructed the Moorish mosque between 1926-30, fashioned after the Grand Mosque of Marrakesh, Morocco. An architectural wonder, the mosque is built in a dramatic departure from the Islamic style of mosques one finds across India. The love for travel and his insatiable thirst for knowledge took him across the globe. He became a clean-shaved man for convenience and didn’t force his sons to keep kesh, according to the Sikh religion. Though later, he asked his grandson to become a baptised Sikh.
Books are written about his beautiful Spanish wife Anita Delgado, a young girl he met in a dance bar and later made his queen. He also married a Czech count’s daughter, Eugenia Maria, in 1942, who committed suicide. This book is not chronological; it presents vignettes on various subjects in a manner of memoirs by his grandson, who also recounts the profound lessons he learnt on respecting time, ordinary people and life’s blessings in the company of his grandfather. The last Maharaja had a special regard for the armed forces. He was the first to volunteer his army for the British effort in World War I, and his third son Amarjit Singh served in France. Brig Sukhjit was commissioned into the regiment of which his grandfather was an honorary colonel.
The chief minister of Punjab Captain Amarinder Singh released the book in Chandigarh, paying homage to the historic links between two of Punjab’s most prominent families — the House of Kapurthala and the House of Patiala. Cynthia, a conservator, hopes the book will be able to revive tourism in other historical towns of Punjab like Kapurthala, which, unfortunately, is confined to Amritsar.
A renewed interest in the erstwhile royals can also support heritage tourism in Punjab; the palaces in Kapurthala offer an interesting peep into history — of the Western influences that overshadowed the native culture — which continues to haunt the present.
Updated Date: Jan 10, 2019 17:14:30 IST