The extravagant exploits of Indian royalty have always held a certain fascination for audiences. We love to hear about a former Maharajah of Junagadh who celebrated the marriage of his golden retriever with a banquet; the Nizam of Hyderabad who used a 282-carat diamond as a paperweight; or the 962.25 carat Patiala necklace that Cartier made for the Maharaj of Patiala.
Author Livia Manera Sambuy was drawn to the story of another Indian royal, Her Royal Highness Rani Shri Amrit Kaur Sahib, the Rani of Mandi, who was born in 1904 and died in London in 1948, soon after World War II. But rather than Amrit’s excesses, it was her restraint that drew the writer to the dignified figure she saw standing in a black and white portrait on display at an exhibition in Mumbai. For Sambuy, Amrit Kaur stood out because, “amid the dazzling display of princes surrounding her, the Rani of Mandi’s choice to wear ‘only’ a necklace of diamond cabochons and two long strings of pearls did seem almost like an act of modesty – or else, as the curator suggested, the sign of a singular character.”
It is this singular character that Sambuy seeks to draw out over 304 pages. Over a journey that takes the author almost a decade and includes research trips to Mumbai, Pune, Mandi and Naggar in Himachal Pradesh, New Delhi, London, San Diego and Sambuy’s home and the city where Kaur was captured in 1940 by the German Gestapo and sent to a prisoner of war camp, Paris.
Sambuy’s hunch that Kaur’s story offers much to explore seems to be correct as she traces her life with the help of an assortment of characters, including Kaur’s octogenarian daughter, Bubbles, the Rani of Bilkha.
It begins with the England-educated princess and her flamboyant father, the Maharajah Jagatjit Singh, a globe-trotting Francophile whose exploits included marrying six times and building a palace in Kapurthala that was described as a pink ‘Versailles’. Raised in a dynamic, cosmopolitan home, Kaur was an early activist of women’s rights and a member of the All India Women’s Conferences. In 1923, she married Raja Joginder Sen and moved to the more provincial town of Mandi. Ten years later Kaur was left with no choice but to leave her family, including her two children, when faced with the indignity of her husband’s second marriage. She eventually arrived in Paris, a city that was like a second home to many peripatetic Indian royals.
Little is known even to her family about what happened in the following years, but Sambuy’s detective work is able to uncover that Kaur spent time in the United States, with her friend and possible partner Louis Goodhue, before returning to Europe just as World War II would take over the continent. Sambuy finds evidence to suggest that Kaur tried to sell some of her jewellery in Paris, either to survive the occupation of the city or perhaps to help a Jewish friend. But in 1940, Kaur was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to an internment camp in France. It was an ordeal that she never truly recovered from and although she was eventually released, Kaur died a few years later in London without getting the chance to return to her home and family, never seeing her children, Bubbles and her son Tipu who were in Mandi.
Along the way in Kaur’s story, we’re introduced to people like Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905; Anita Delgado, a renowned flamenco dancer who became her father’s fifth wife; painters Nicholas Roerich and Amrita Sher Gil; and a host of other lesser-known but noteworthy figures. Among them is the photographer James Lafayette, whose portrait of the Rani of Mandi triggered this story; Albert Kahn a Jewish banker and family friend; jeweller Jacques Cartier who was favoured by the Kapurthalas; Tara Devi, Jagjtjit Singh’s sixth wife, a Czechoslovakian actress who leapt to her death from the Qutb Minar in New Delhi; and a range of other irresistible characters from spies to politicians, prison camp survivors and more alluring princesses. Through their accounts, Sambuy conjures up the dual picture of Europe in the midst of World War II and India on the eve of its Independence.
Though many of these names are familiar and perhaps some of the details about India’s shifting cultural landscape seem to tread over familiar ground, Sambuy’s gift for gripping personal vignettes and her easy, evocative style makes this a joyful read. But the scarcity of material about Kaur leaves one as frustrated as Sambuy. It’s finally in the last quarter of the book, when she’s able to track down a few personal documents that once belonged to the princess, that we finally get a real glimpse of that singular character: the woman who chose to leave her family and travel across the world to chart her own independent path.
Because just like Bubbles, who still struggles to reconcile being left behind by her mother, Sambuy’s own story is also tinged with loss. Estranged from her mother, facing the death of a brother, the end of a marriage, an empty nest as her children leave for college. Sambuy’s decade-long journey with Amrit Kaur unfolds as she discovers the shape of her own life – independent, unburdened, a woman with a room of her own, just as Amrit Kaur tried to be.
Butool Jamal is an editor and fashion journalist.