Portraits: Here’s How The Badass Queens Of India Rolled!
- JWB Post
- December 21, 2015
Did you know how badass the queens of India used to be? Well, if you had no idea, jump on the wagon, and we’ll take you on a ride through the history of some of the most historical queens of our country.
This article first appeared here.
- The Taaluqdars of Oudh: “Photograph from a leaf out of an album that illustrates a memoir of the ‘Taaluqdars of Oudh’ by Abbas Ali. Photographs of male members of the royal family are featured alongside boxes in which cartouches with the marking ‘pardanashin’ are used to stand in for actual images of the women taaluqdars… A quite literal example of the way that women were written out of history is exemplified by the below picture, which features a photograph of the Rajah, but not his Rani Thakurain, saying instead, simply, ‘Pardanashin.’ The widespread practice of purdah posed several difficulties for photographers, and one result is that while photographic chronicles of the lives of male members of royalty are large, images of the women of royal households from the mid 19th to mid 20th centuries are scarce.”
- Rajmata Gayatri Devi of Jaipur: “Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur with villagers in her campaign for the election that she was to win eventually with the world’s largest landslide at the time, a fact that put her into the Guinness Records for the second time. An avid equestrienne, she was also a keen hunter in her youth, shooting her first panther at the age of 13. Fond of fast cars, she is credited with importing the first Mercedes-Benz W126 to India. She established several schools for girls, and her promotion of traditional Rajasthani blue is credited with revitalizing the arts and crafts of the region.”
- Maharani Chimnabai of Baroda: “Maharani Chimnabai, wife of Maharaj Sayajirao Gaekwad III, and grandmother to the future Rajmata Gayatri Devi was the Maharani of the princely state of Baroda, one of only five princely states to be granted a 21-gun salute by the British. A committed nationalist, her dedication to the cause of female empowerment led to Baroda becoming the first state to discard the system of purdah. The first president of the All-India Women’s Conference (she was invited to the post by Sarojini Naidu), she was also the co-author of the book ‘The Position of Women in Indian Life.’ A keen tennis player, Maharani Chimnabai was also famous for roller-skating through the royal palace of Baroda, leaving behind ripples of her sari and a delicate trail of perfume. A woman of impeccable style, she is said to have advised her daughter, Indira Devi Raje, ‘never wear emeralds with a green sari… they look so much better with pink.”
- Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Bayi of Travancore: “Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the older of the two young princesses seen here, was adopted into the matrilineal royal family of Travancore. A granddaughter of the celebrated painter Raja Ravi Varma, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was Regent of Travancore from 1924 to 1931. Known as the ‘Golden Age of Travancore,’ her regency was remarkable for many progressive reforms such as the abolition of the ‘Devadasi’ system, and the end of the costly system of paying nuzzars to royalty. She also instituted immense disaster relief for the infamous flood of 1924. Her meeting with Mahatma Gandhi resulted in a royal proclamation by which almost all public roads to Vaikom Temple were opened to all castes. Under her regency, thousands of acres of land were redistributed amongst the landless. It was also during her regency that electricity reached Trivandrum for the first time. There was controversy during her reign too, but she is still remembered as an intelligent, loyal Regent with great force of personality, a woman described by Gandhiji as ‘the ideal of Indian womanhood.’”
- Indira Devi of Kapurthala: “Maharajkumari Indira Devi (a.k.a. Princess Indee), born in 1912, was the daughter of Maharaja Paramjit Singh and Maharani Brinda of Kapurthala. By all accounts a spirited, intelligent young woman, she left India for Britain in her early 20s to become a movie star. She studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and worked briefly in the movies, narrating a few films. After the outbreak of WWII, this feisty young princess successfully passed the St. John Ambulance examination and drove ambulances during air raids! She eventually joined the BBC in 1942 and hosted several series of radio broadcasts in Hindustani for Indian forces stationed in the Middle East. She also became famous for hosting ‘The Debate Continues’- a weekly broadcast to India. For this programme, she reported from the House of Commons, where she was the only woman in the entire press gallery!Popularly known as the ‘Radio Princess,’ she continued to work for the BBC till 1968. She passed away in 1979, in Ibiza, Spain.”
- Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala: “Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala, seen here photographed by Cecil Beaton, was a remarkable woman, legendary for her beauty and style, and adored by everyone from Andre Durst to Ira Gershwin. Labeled a ‘Secular Goddess’ by Vogue magazine, and known as ‘The Pearl of India,’ she took Europe’s fashion houses by storm, dripping in silk and diamonds.On one of her trips, she met noted fashion designer of the day Elsa Schiaparelli, a contemporary and arch rival of Coco Chanel. Such was the dazzling allure of the young Sita Devi that Schiaparelli was inspired to design her entire 1935 collection of gowns as saris! These vintage garments have since been coined ‘sari-robes’.”
- Nawab Shah Jehab Begum of Bhopal: “The princely state of Bhopal had a long history of progressive female rulers, seeing four women on the throne between 1819 and 1926. It is important to note that these women were not royal consorts, but rules in their stead, making Bhopal a significant milestone, both in the history of female rulers and in Islamic political history in India.Shah Jahan Begum, pictured here, was the ruler of Bhopal for more than three decades, and even by Bhopal’s impressive standards, she was remarkable. She was responsible for improving the tax revenue system, for modernizing the military, and for issuing the first stamps of Bhopal state. She also raised the salaries of soldiers and implemented widespread relief work after outbreaks of the plague.Widely regarded as a popular ruler, she was a learned and pious woman who, while remaining a devout Muslim, never observed purdah. Credited with the authorship of several Urdu books, she was also responsible for the construction of many beautiful architectural projects. She remained a significant patron of the arts, and much of Bhopal’s cultural and literary life owed a great deal to her.”
- Maharani of Nepal, her daughter, and five daughters-in-law:
Note: Not in India, but merited inclusion for being our close and equally badass neighbors. “In the early days of photography, the long exposure time needed to capture images necessitated that the subject remains still for an extended period. Sometimes, the sitter was held upright or erect with the help of invisible clamps at the back of the head or neck. This enforced stillness might have caused some discomfort to the subject, particularly if they, like the royal women of Nepal (pictured above) were wearing elaborate, heavy garments and headdresses.”
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