An exotic prince with six wives. Marvellous palaces surrounded by luxuriant gardens. Invaluable jewels. Tiger and crocodile hunting. Elephant back-rides. Cohabitation with Civil servants of the British Raj. You’ll hear about all of this in the beautiful biography published by Roli Books, a New Delhi based publisher. But Prince, Patron and Patriarch is also about France. Jagatjit Singh, Maharaja of Kapurthala was probably the most Francophile prince of the Raj.
As most of his fellow rulers, he had Cartier, Vuitton, Arthus-Bertrand, Roger & Gallet, Pol Roger as his suppliers. But he was not just a random customer of French luxury brands. He had a real passion for France and French language. He spent a lot of time in Biarritz, Deauville, Nice, Cannes, but mainly in Paris, his favourite city. There he had a very nice house in the Bois de Boulogne, where he was hosting the international elite gathering in Paris. He was a close friend to the Princesse de Broglie, née Say, to whom he presented a baby elephant to adorn the gardens of her property, the Château de Chaumont-sur-Loire. He was awarded the Grand Croix de la Légion d’honneur and had Clemenceau as his guest in India. His son and heir studied at Jeanson de Sailly and at the Sorbonne University.
He also brought a bit of France in India. The Jagatjit Palace was built by French architects and full of Aubusson carpets and Gobelins tapestries. In the hill station of Mussoorie, he even had his ‘Château Kapurthala”. Obviously, his cook, Amanat Khan, studied in Paris!
To talk about this extraordinary character, the most Francophile Maharaja of the British Raj, we are pleased to discuss with Cynthia Meera Frederick, the author of this fascinating biography, full of old pictures and historical documents.
First of all, dear Cynthia, could you explain what are your personal links with Kapurthala on one side, and with France and French language on the other side?
I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to study French language which led to travels across France and Europe where I became particularly enamored with classic French architecture. So when by chance during my annual visit to India to spend time with my family, I discovered that right within the country was a magnificent slice of France in Punjab I was fascinated. This propelled me to learn more about the history of the Kapurthala state, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh and his eponymous Jagatjit Palace. My admiration for France architecture along with my fascination for Indian History and commitment to heritage preservation all found a happy confluence in Kapurthala which evolved to an extraordinary journey of chronicling the life of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh and working with the Kapurthala Royal Family to protect and preserve this legacy.
In this book, you are telling about the fascinating life of Jagatjit Singh, Raja and later Maharaja of Kapurthala. Could you tell us a bit more about him?
Prior to the Independence of India from British Colonial rule , there were almost 600 semi-autonomous “Princely States” ruled by titular heads with titles such as Raja, Maharaja or Nawab. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh was the last ruler of what was formerly Kapurthala State. Located in the Punjab (in North India) Kapurthala was not the largest state, or the wealthiest but owing to Maharaja Jagatjit Singh great presence on the global stage, he was one of the best known amongst the Indian Princes in the West. He was well known for traveling to numerous continents and countries – he saw more of the world than most of his time and even today- but it was his love for France which earned him renown as “le Roi Francophonie”. He infused French language, culture and aesthetics into Kapurthala which became known as the Paris of the Punjab. Not only that, but he was such a forward thinking ruler advocating for educational advancement, technological advancement and religious harmony. So in summary, of all of these ruling princes, he stood apart as being one of the most dynamic, well-travelled and forward thinking amongst this galaxy of ruling princes. Above all, he was guided by the principles of Sikhism which advocates creating a just society, service to humanity and devotion to God.
He was one of the Sikh rulers of India. Could you tell us who are the Sikhs, who are not very well known in France?
The Sikh religion was founded in 1469 by Guru Nanak and it would be impossible to adequately pay tribute to its storied history succinctly but fundamentally it is one of the most peaceful, open and welcoming religions that advocates for the equality, respect and harmony of all individuals. The Sikh Temples, known as the Gurudwara offer communal meals to all visitors and welcomes everyone. They are a community historically associated with bravery and one of the most outward symbols of living by the Sikh principles of honor, justice and love for humanity is that men do not cut their hair and wear a turban – this makes them easily identifiable. They live by the code of honor, self respect and diligent work.
As a ruler of a Princely State within the British Raj, he had close ties with the colonial power. What were his personal links with the UK, London and the Royal Family?
Maharaja Jagatjit Singh was 5 years old when he inherited the throne of Kapurthala. However until he turned 18, Kapurthala State was administered by British administrators. He also had British tutors who must be credited with his upbringing. Therefore, he had grown up with the concept of the British sovereign and when he called on Queen Victoria in 1893, he was very much at ease and comfortable with her – she was in many ways a maternal figure to him. He was also very close to her grandson the Duke of Connaught among others members of the British royal family and endured quite cherished friendships. For example Queen Mary was aware that he admired beautiful interiors and objects so after a private lunch, she gave him a personal tour of Buckingham Palace. He had attended almost all of the grandest functions (weddings, coronations) centered around the British Royal family and as an Indian Prince enjoyed an unprecedented level of intimacy exemplified with his relationships to them. This speaks volumes about his dignified personality and also about his high degree of confidence as he was able to engage with the British royal family with diplomacy and ease thus seamlessly straddling two cultures simultaneously.
But he was mainly fond of France! Why had he this passion for France and French language?
It was often said in error that the Maharaja gravitated towards France just to make an anti-British statement which was absolutely untrue. Early on, from around age 12 he demonstrated a strong interest in language, geography and history. Although he was fluent in 5 languages, he declared that French was the most beautiful language in the world and he was determined to master it – which he did. Not only could he speak it fluently, but he even wrote all of his diary entries in French. We must remember also that French was the international language of diplomacy during that age. When he first went to France in 1893 he was simply awed by its beauty and way of living; everything about the country stirred his passions : the people, language, culture and aesthetics. This visit began his life-long love affair with France.
Could you give us some examples?
Kapurthala is best associated not only with the unique examples of French Architecture that were built in India (the Jagatjit Palace and the Chateau Kapurthala) but also its patronage of many iconic French luxury brands now synonymous to the family. Many of the Maharaja’s closest friends hailed from the oldest and most noble families of France and he was a regular guest at the Elysee Palace and also mingles amongst artistic circles. One thing that is so extraordinary about the House of Kapurthala in terms of connections to France is that 5 members, of various generations spanning from 3 of his sons down to his great-grandson Tikka Shatrujit Singh (awarded in 2015) have been awarded the prestigious French Legion of Honor. This is a remarkable tribute to Franco – India ties of friendship and underscores the mutual respect between the Government of the Republic of France and the Kapurthala Royal family. The Maharaja was recognized in “Les Amis de France” a global registry put out by the French Government where he and his son Maharaja Kumar Amarjit Singh were the only Indians included. Recently, a high ranking French official who was visiting India said to me “in France the world Maharaja really means the Maharaja of Kapurthala.”
Two of his six wives were European, but one was Spanish and the other one Czech. Why did he not choose a French wive?
This is a question I too have often wondered. He spent so much time in Paris and had so many admirers in France and such a wide circle of friends there so it remains a great mystery why he did not ever marry a French woman. It would have been highly logical and most appropriate!! But it appears that both fate and circumstances did not provide the right opportunity.
The Maharaja was a « citizen of the world » and he travelled all around the planet. Was he welcomed in the USA, in Argentina, or in Japon, as well as he was in France?
Yes, indeed he was greeted quite enthusiastically in all parts of the world. In the United States he had numerous friendships (which originally stemmed from Paris where international society gathered each season) and for example he was accorded gun salutes to welcome him when he arrived at the World Fair Exposition. He visited the New York Stock exchange as a chief guest and he was well received everywhere he went including Hollywood. In South America, so much press preceded him and by this point he had international celebrity status drawing crowds much curiosity and in Japan, where he visited in 1903 and 1929, he was both times awarded an audience at the Chrysanthemum throne – with the Japanese emperors. So even outside of France his stature was highly recognized across the globe and he was made to feel welcome everywhere.
He was also a humanist, focused on liberty and tolerance. For example, you explain in the book that he was horrified by segregation in the USA. He was also a « person of colour » in a world ruled by white people. What dit it mean for him?
His faith decreed the every individual is equal in the eyes of God and yes, he was quite appalled by racial and religious bigotry which he witnessed within India and abroad. He was such a sophisticate and charming individual who outclassed most white men – he was far more cultivated than others and he posed social graces that most of them lacked in many cases. As earlier stated, it was this composure and natural grace which facilitated his friendship with the British royal family for example. Rather importantly he spoke perfect French which was a passport to the world – it was the language of taste and culture therefore when he called on the courts in Russia, Egypt, Belgium, Indochine and even Japan, it was spoken giving him a great advantage. So people took notice of his exceptional personality and magnetism which superseded any prevailing prejudices that may have existed against his race.
He was the Sikh ruler of a land where there were a majority of Muslim people and a lot of Hindus. How was he dealing with his religious tolerance?
This stems from the Sikh faith whose foundation is based totally on egalitarianism. However, credit is also due to his British administrators who helped nurture such values and encouraged him to judge people based entirely on merit and without giving preferences based on religion or other considerations. He always assessed an individual on character and deeds alone.
And then his world was pulled down with the Indian Independance. What were the consequences for him, his family, his people? What happened to Kapurthala?
While the Independence of India was a celebrated event, the consequences of the Partition of the Punjab were devastating to the Maharaja to witness. Prior to Partition nearly 60 percent of the population of Kapurthala were Muslims and they formed an integral part of Kapurthala’s administration and running the palace household and the state was a model of communal harmony. But this all changed and not only was there a terrible bloodshed and violence with the exchange of populations migrating East and West but in the aftermath there was a loss of cultural and historic conventions in Kapurthala as so many of the bearers of tradition had departed. Refugees flooded in to Kapurthala from the West and their priority was survival – not culture. Sadly, many customs were lost as a result which had long term repercussions on preservation and heritage and tourism initiatives in the region. In addition Maharaja Jagatjit Singh died in 1949 – a mere two years later which further compounded the loss of historic observances. However, many of the beautiful buildings of Kapurthala have been recently resorted and a master plan for adaptive – reuse is being commissioned along with tourism initiatives which members of the Kapurthala family are contributing ideas and tangible support.
You wrote this book with Brigadier Sukhjit Singh, his grandson. Could you tell us about him?
Brig. HH Sukhjit Singh divides his time between Kapurthala and the hills station of Mussoorie where he spends the warm summer months. He is very active producing audio-visual material to document the history of the various regiments of the Indian Army . He himself retired from the Indian Army after two and a half decades of military service in peace and conflict situations. Recently he took part of the national observances to note the 50th anniversary of the 1971 Indo – Pakistani conflict in which he was decorated for gallantry. It is hard to believe it has been half a century! In addition he is a passionate advocate for the welfare of Indian street dogs – he shelters 20 animals who otherwise would have been homeless.
You’ve chosen three pictures. Could you comment them?
©The Kapurthala Collection . All rights reserved.
Left: This photograph shows the Maharaja around 1915 whilst in Paris. At first glance you could easily mistake him for being a European gentleman elegantly clad as a Flaneur strolling in the park. His style of dress and his confident poise demonstrates his natural ability to fit in two cultures as he is just as at easily assimilated in western world as back in India.
Middle: This grand image of the Maharaja reflects the pomp and grandeur of the age of Indian Princes that is now lost to time. He is embellished with a diamond tiara, sword, medals and robe of honor and the Kapurthala throne is placed as a backdrop – all of this signifies his stature. When I look at this I realize that such an era will never be seen again. Similarly, I thought I would mention that the grand portrait which graces our book cover was painted in Paris by the French artist Theobald Chartran in 1905 and it too magnificently captures him as the quintessential Maharaja. This was exhibited in New York, London and Paris which also helped secure prominence.
Right: At the end of the day, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh as the head of the family, was a devoted father and grandfather. This touching portrait dates from 1947 where he is captured with his beloved grandson Sukhjit. One can really sense the strong bond that existed between them and he taught his grandson the same principles of living a life dedicated to service and respecting others.