Miles Taylor’s The English Maharani Queen Victoria and India charts the remarkable effects India had on the queen. This excerpt talks about the Queen’s relationship with other princely women of the country.
Queen Victoria wanted to do more than just correspond with the royal women of India. In 1876 she suggested that a new order of honours be established in India exclusively for women. This was the Order of the Crown of India, agreed to by Salisbury and Lytton in the summer of 1877, and intended for notable women of India: Female members of the royal family, Indian princely spouses, vicereines and other wives of senior Government of India officials. It was the only order in British history ever to be restricted to women. Although across its existence – no awards were made after 1947 – it became dominated by Europeans (86 out of 109 Companions in total), half of the sixteen awards to Indian women came in the first instalment in 1878. Of these some followed the normal hierarchy of the Indian states: Bamba Singh (the wife of Duleep Singh), the Begums of Bhopal, the Maharani of Mysore, the Gaekwad of Baroda, the Begum Sahiba of Hyderabad. Room was also made for the Princess of Tanjore. And, in a signal that royal marriage was not the only criteria for inclusion in the order, the Maharani of Kasim Bazar, a small estate in northern Bengal, was made a Companion for her contributions to the famine relief campaigns earlier in the decade. Outside of this order, two other Indian women were elevated to maharani for their efforts in the famine relief: Sham Moini of Dinajpur (in Bengal) and Haro Dundari Debia of Siarsol (also in Bengal). As far as the queen was concerned, the native aristocracy of India, so important to the stability of the Raj, included women, even if their role was a minor one. The investiture ceremonies that followed certainly confirmed the secondary status of these women at court. At Hyderabad, the nizam was simply sent a packet containing the regalia and left to pass it on to his consort. At her investiture the Gaekwad of Baroda was screened off, with the wife of the British resident pinning on the new order. In Tanjore there was a more formal event, but the princess’s acceptance speech was read out on her behalf. Only in Mysore did the maharani appear in public and read out an address. However, despite their seclusion, there could be no doubting the personal connection that the new order established with the queen. At Kasim Bazar, the maharani read out her acceptance speech in Bengali from behind a screen, praising the queen as the ‘monarch of the world’ and the ‘sovereign Mother of India’.
It was the only order in British history ever to be restricted to women. Although across its existence – no awards were made after 1947 – it became dominated by Europeans (86 out of 109 Companions in total), half of the sixteen awards to Indian women came in the first instalment in 1878.
So, by the time she became empress, Queen Victoria had made links to a small but devoted sisterhood of Indian female rulers. Her Indian royal admirers were reformers, moderately independent in their personal lives, and in the administration of their state. In the next generation, a different type of royal progressive emerged, reformist not so much in power, which they did not exercise, but in their attitudes towards the place of women in Indian society. Two maharani stand out: Suniti Devi, the wife of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, and Chimnabai, the consort of the Gaekwar of Baroda. Cooch Behar was a small state in the north-east of Bengal. The maharaja married the daughter of Chandra Sen, the leader of the Brahmo Sumaj, an unusual pairing of a Calcutta progressive and a small royal dynasty. Suniti joined her husband in attending the queen’s jubilee celebrations in London in the summer of 1887, staying on until the following year. Recalling the visit over three decades later she painted a picture of unconventional intimacy at the English court: face to face kissing on being presented to the queen, and dancing. What was excluded from her later account was also significant – the story of her dress. Already en route to England, she and the maharaja received word that Queen Victoria wished the Indian royal visits to her jubilee to appear in their ‘native dress’. For the Cooch Behar couple this presented a slight problem, as they had already been tailored and kitted out in European finery as they passed through Calcutta at the beginning of their trip. Hasty rearrangements were made with tailors en route. When they appeared at court all was in place; that is to say, Suniti wore a sari, but unlike at home her head was uncovered. Never one to miss a trick, the queen noted the substitute clothing – ‘a sort of Eastern dress of European materials’ – and observed that the maharaja had arrived without his diamonds. The couple’s son, inevitably named Victor, was born on their return to Bengal, with Queen Victoria as godmother. Over time Suniti went on to fashion herself as a western-style matriarch at her own court, wearing European dress. She also developed an expertise on the role of women in Indian history. She authored a biography of Buddha’s wife, Yasodhara, a study of Rajputana princesses, and an account of women in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Suniti’s later verdict on Queen Victoria was fairly formulaic – ‘a good wife, a good mother, and a good woman all round’ – yet her autobiography places her time spent with the queen as a formative moment in her life, presaging her emergence as a public presence alongside her husband.
Recalling the visit over three decades later she painted a picture of unconventional intimacy at the English court: face to face kissing on being presented to the queen, and dancing. What was excluded from her later account was also significant – the story of her dress.
An even more globetrotting royal couple were the Gaekwar of Baroda and his second wife, Shrimant Lakshmibai Mohite (1871–1958), who became Chimnabai II on their marriage in 1885. Sayajirao had been placed on the gaddi (throne) of Baroda following the infamous attempt to murder the British resident Colonel Phayre. Chimnabai was in purdah. As a couple, they too met with the queen, on two occasions, in 1892 and 1900. As the Gaekwar described in an article published after their second visit, Chimnabai ‘enjoys [in Britain] to the full the liberty she lacks in Baroda’, where women remained in seclusion, and ‘not even myself can at the present time lift up the veil’. Chimnabai herself developed this narrative of European modernity and Indian conservatism into a political programme. Her encyclopaedic primer for social reform led by women, The Position of Women in Indian Life, published in 1911 to coincide with the coronation of George V and Queen Mary, had royal exemplars leading the way: Razia Begum (the Sultana of Delhi in the thirteenth century), Nur Jahan (the wife of Jahangir), Ahalya Bai (the Queen of Malwa in the eighteenth century), the present Begum of Bhopal, and Queen Victoria, under whose ‘sway’ the greatest empire the world had ever known had expanded. Chimnabai went on to become an influential voice in the women’s movement in India, supporting the Gaekwar’s efforts to open up education to girls in Baroda. In these ways, courtly encounters with Queen Victoria served as important rites of passage for a younger generation of royal women in India, signifying their membership of a small club of consorts.
Excerpted with permission from The English Maharani Queen Victoria and India by Miles Taylor published by Penguin Books. Rs 799, 408 pp.
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