Kapurthala’s Francophile Maharaja

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    For the longest time, India’s image around the world was as the land of the exotic Maharajas and one man, who personified this, was none other than Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. Long before the age of modern jetliners and social media, his travels in United States, Argentina, Chile, Japan and the farthest corners of Siberia, would create a sensation, as crowds would throng the streets from Buenos Aires to Hong Kong to have a glimpse of this exotic potentate.

    While much has been written about Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, his travels, his jewels and palaces , the recently released book ‘Prince, Patron and Patriarch: Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala’ by Brigadier Sukhjit Singh and Cynthia Meera Frederick for the first time, throws light on him as a man, beyond the exotic and scandalous. Through never seen before photographs and extracts from his personal diaries and travelogues, the book tells the story of a ruler who wanted to bring the world to his people.

    The life of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh can be summed up by one teary line, uttered by one of his ministers , after he passed away in 1949 – ‘ Maharaja Sahab badey aadmi they, riyasat bana gaye aur aapney saath bhi le gaye’ (Maharaja was a great man, he created a state and took it with him). At the time of his death, the kingdom that he had ruled and built was merged into the Indian Union, but his legacy continues to this day.

    For 72 years, Maharaja and his larger than life personality exemplified Kapurthala and made it a well-known name around the world. The book brings out very interesting facts such as how Maharaja had asked Sir Herbert Baker, one of the architects of New Delhi, to design a masterplan for Kapurthala town, which was never carried out due to paucity of funds.

    My personal favorite snippet from the book is that of the ‘Mystery of the Missing cocktails’. As the palace guests would depart for dinner, they would leave their unfinished cocktails in the sitting room. However, as the butlers would arrive to clear them, they would be found mysteriously evaporated from their glasses, despite no one entering the room! Suspecting mischief from staff members, investigations continued at the palace with much paranoia, yet the perpetrator remained at large and cocktails kept disappearing. One day, the greatest of mysteries was finally revealed, when Dr Chang – the Maharaja’s favourite Pekinese was found passed out drunk behind a sofa. The tiny dog would wipe the glasses clean with his tiny snout but take extra care to not to tip them over, as it would be a dead giveaway!

    It is things like these that make the book a delight. For ‘Story behind the Story’ I spoke to co-author Cynthia Meera Fredericks on the Maharaja and his legacy in Punjab today.

    No book on Princely India is complete without a mention of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. He, in a way, personified the princely era. Tell us how you decided to embark on this book project?

    There are so many mentions of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh in different books, but I find that it is all the same information regurgitated. Very one dimensional. There were no specific mentions (of his travels), of dates, and I was fortunate to spend time in Kapurthala and have access to his letters, his diaries, and really thought that this is a story that needs to be shared and also, I was privileged to hear Brigadier Sukhjit Singh tell me his personal stories about his grandfather.

    Yes, he was known as a public figure, a well-known Maharaja of his age, but as a person, not much was recorded. So there were so many stories that people needed to hear. There was just not enough in-depth information.

    Maharaja Jagatjit Singh was famous as a Francophile Maharaja, known for his love for all things French. This was quite unusual for that time, where rulers generally aped the British. How did his love affair with France begin?

    It initially began with languages. He had a real capacity for linguistics at a young age, had British tutors who nurtured this gift and he learned both oriental and occidental languages. He learned Persian, Sanskrit, Gurumukhi and so on.. but when he started studying the European languages, it was French that he was immediately attracted to. He wrote [in his diaries] that it was the most beautiful languages in the world, and at a very young age, he was determined to learn it.

    We also have to remember that [during the colonial period] French was also the languages of diplomacy, of the courts, and had a grand prominence in the world stage at the time. Because he was so attracted to the language, he studied Geography, and through that learned a little bit more about France and desired to visit there. Finally, when he went there in 1893, he just fell in love with the country because it was so beautiful, particularly Paris, which just captivated him. He had the advantage of speaking French so he made friendships very easily and some of his lifelong friends were French. He just felt so welcomed in France as well.

    It is generally mistaken that his love for France and everything French was an anti-British political statement. This is definitely not true. The British were curious about this French loving maharaja. But his love for France and the French was just his genuine love for the culture, nothing political at all.

    How did his family and people look at this very Westernised King, who loved everything French?

    His immediate family, was a very cultured family and I think, they accepted the fact that he was looking beyond the scope of Punjab. I don’t think it was anything controversial. He had tutors and advisors from a young age, who realized that this child hungered to see the world beyond Kapurthala. I don’t think it raised any eyebrows. I think they saw his insatiable thirst for knowledge, wanted to learn about other countries and cultures, and France was a part of it.

    Regarding his travels, he was travelling to places like South American, in the United States, North Africa and the Far East. How did the world look at this exotic ruler and how did he look at this new world beyond India.

    He aroused a lot of curiosity and attention when he travelled. There was a lot of press wherever he went because he was deemed this exotic, larger than life figure. And regarding how he saw the world, as I have mentioned before, his insatiable desire for knowledge and for learning. He was interested in all types of people, cultures, learning of different types of religion and so on. But what I think is the most significant part of his travels, is that he was seeking out modernity. He wanted to find inventions that were being developed in the outside world, and how he could import some of these things, such as manufacturing and industry to his own state of Kapurthala. He set up many industries, and some of these companies are still extant and thriving today.

    Going through his diaries and travelogues, as his biographer, was there anything particular that really stands out for you?

    There are so many aspects of his travel that are just unbelievable. For example, I may be an American, but he perhaps has seen more America than I have. There is an expression by Maharaja of Alwar that I use to this day that –‘ it is easier to name a handful of places that he [Maharaja Jagatjit Singh] did not visit, rather than name all the places that he did visit. I think one thing that is not as well known, that in addition to France, he really loved Japan. He felt that the Japanese culture was so extraordinary, their aesthetics were so beautiful and the people were so gracious. He even had a Japanese room in the Jagatjit Palace. So while he is known as ‘La Roi de la Francophonie’ [the Francophile king], he also had an affinity towards Japan and the Japanese culture.

    Jagatjit Palace at Kapurthala is perhaps his biggest and most famous legacy. Can you tell us something about his involvement in the construction?

    Maharaja Jagatjit Singh had met Alexander Marcel, who was a very prominent architect at the time in Paris. I know from the records, that he had worked very closely with Marcel regarding the designs. He also selected all the furnishings, and even the design of the gardens based on the ones at Versailles. He would also go out every morning on horseback and see the construction and how it was progressing.

    The later years of Maharaja’s life also saw tremendous changes sweeping through India and Europe, with World War II, India’s Independence, Partition and the loss of his kingdom. How did he relate to these winds of change?

    Maharaja Jagatjit Singh realized that there was this growing need for independence, and he wasn’t feudal in that sense. I refer to a New York Times article from 1943, where an interview speaks about how content they are in Kapurthala, there is a bumper crop of wheat, no communal tensions, and enlightened paternal rule. They were blissfully unaware of what was happening in other parts of India. But Maharaja Jagatjit Singh was very aware of where the winds of change were coming, and that he accepted.

    But what was so hard for him was so hard for him was the communal violence that erupted, the Partition of Punjab [in 1947], where over a half of his population left Kapurthala [for Pakistan]. And they did not leave Kapurthala because they were unhappy. In fact, the majority of his household staff and ministers were Muslims. But they knew that there might be an influx of refugees and that they might be targeted by these refugees, and that Maharaja Jagatjit Singh’s powers would now be limited to protect them. But everyone thought they would be able to come back, which never happened. But he [Maharaja Jagatjit Singh] was absolutely heartbroken with this Partition. It was tragic for him to witness all this.

    Coming to the last question, as his biographer, how do you think young Indians relate to this man, who lived in a world so very different from today?

    Right now we live in a very digitally centric age, so when you see the web or the Pinterest images of him, it is focused on the material culture, which is certainly is extraordinary. The princely rulers left behind a spectacular culture, splendid palaces and fabulous jewels. But unfortunately, just focusing on that, we tend to ignore how they were as people, and some of them were quiet capable leaders and rulers.

    It was really fashionable during socialist times to really discount the princely order and any of their accomplishments. Now you find a lot of young people taking an interest in their past. That is very encouraging, especially here in Kapurthala.

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