Monday, January 26, 2015

The Ordinary Life of a Maharani

A couple of months ago, I came across this striking photograph on
 and wondered about the lovely Indian lady in formal Victorian court attire. The short description below the photo indicated that this was Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch-Behar, in a photo dated to 1902 when she travelled to England and was presented at the court of Queen Victoria.
Curious to read more about her, I looked for the Wikipedia entry and also came across her autobiography which can be either read online or downloaded.

She started with a fairly ordinary life as a child, till her father, Brahmo luminary Keshab Chandra Sen, decided to take off on his own tangent and start his own variant of the Brahmos and a school for young women. His daughters were well educated, and consequently sought after as brides for leading princes, of whom the Maharaja of Cooch-Behar Nripendranarayan was one. Suniti was married to him at a young age and went to live with him after she came of age.
An unremarkable person, made remarkable by the circumstances, she describes a life of conjugal happiness, much love and lightness, a large family with many children, a faithful and loving husband. She dwells at large upon her stays in England and seems to have been the toast of the English court. She has never a cross or unkind word for the majority of her acquaintances, life sailed a smooth keel till the passing of her husband, followed by the shock of losing the beloved son who briefly took over the kingship.
Life went on, and she passed on in due course, but not before taking the time to author her own story as well as another booklet of Grandma's tales.
Here she is in widows weeds, as photographed shortly after her husband passed away. Her hair is greyed, but her eyes still have the clear serenity that they had in her heyday, despite the sorrow that now shades them.

(Photo credits:"Her Highness Maharani Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar" by Pinewood Studios - V&A Picture Library. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
"Suniti Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar" by Photographs from the Lafayette Studio Archive of the V&A, London - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)


Lekhni said...

Thanks for the tip about Old Indian photos - great website.

What's with all the maharajas in there, though ? Every one of them looks unhappy and unimpressive (OK, except Chamarajendra Wadiyar and Asaf Jah, but they were both kids).

Sujatha said...

Apparently, smiling the way we do for modern photos and selfies wasn't physically feasible until cameras could handle shorter exposure times. This link has a good explanation :

Lekhni said...

That may be true. But see this one, also from the 1880s :

I'm sure those rajas considered smiling as beneath them anyway. But I wasn't even looking for a smile. They somehow look actively unhappy and not in the least regal or imposing. I wonder if it's just my expectations :(

Sujatha said...

You found maybe one of two photos under the 1880's category that show a smiling face - none of the other formal aristocrats or even middle class groupings cracked a smile in that era. I wonder if it was something to do with the era and the perception of the solemnity of a photo session.Speaking of generational differences,to this day, I am not able to get my mother-in-law to smile for the camera. She has a lovely smile when she does, but turns grim the moment a camera is focused on her. But Skype on an iPad doesn't threaten her as much, so I see her smile on that :)

Rajas were people too, and that's what I love about the old photographs- they show both kings and commoners as real people rather than glorified godlike figures a la Chennai politician cut-outs.