Review of In Search of Amrit Kaur — An Indian Princess in Wartime Paris: The elusive Rani of Mandi

A writer pieces together the story of Amrit Kaur and her life but there’s not enough on the protagonist

February 24, 2023 09:02 am | Updated 09:02 am IST

Coronation of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh (1872-1949), father of Amrit Kaur, on November 24, 1890, Darbar Hall, Kapurthala.

Coronation of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh (1872-1949), father of Amrit Kaur, on November 24, 1890, Darbar Hall, Kapurthala. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The search of an Indian princess was inspired by a photograph.

Livia Manera Sambuy, an Italian writer living in Paris, is killing time in Mumbai after completing an assignment. She casually drops in to see an exhibition of photographs of maharanis and maharajas. They do not really excite her until one photograph catches her attention.

It is a full-length photograph of a beautiful slender young woman “whose grace in that setting shone like a ray of light.” She was her royal highness, Maharani Amrit Kaur of Mandi, the daughter of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh Bahadur of Kapurthala. Compared to the other royals, she wore little jewellery. The last part of the write-up accompanying her picture said that she had been arrested by the Gestapo in occupied Paris for having sold her jewellery to help Jews escape from the city. She was imprisoned for a few months and died soon after. Did she really help the Jews?

The world of the rich

Sambuy was intrigued and she wanted to find out more. It took her almost a decade to do it and in In Search of Amrit Kaur: An Indian Princess in Wartime Paris she tells the story. Amrit Kaur was the only daughter among six children from the five wives of the Maharaja of Kapurthala. She was educated and had an activist mindset, speaking up on women’s rights when nobody did.

In her pursuit of Amrit Kaur, Sambuy discovers the world of the royal families of Punjab and the north-west, their wealth and opulent, and mostly decadent, lifestyle. It is a world of octagonal emeralds, enormous pearls, impossibly big diamonds. It is the story of characters belonging to a lost era, kings, queens, princes and princesses, privileges and privy purses, jubilee balls and fabulous parties. The royalty mingled with bankers, jewellers and artists.

There are lengthy descriptions of these rich and famous people. This is the world Amrit Kaur belonged to, but very few of them were connected to the princess. The book morphs into an examination of life in the post-World War I period when people made great fortunes and lost them as well. For instance, there is a lot of information on Albert Kahn, a Jewish banker who too made and lost a fortune, and whom Jagatjit Singh seems to have known in Paris. He has no connection to the Amrit Kaur story. Sambuy, however, writes about all the Jewish connections the family had, to make it plausible that Amrit Kaur could have helped Jews escape from Nazi occupation.

Missing links

Amrit’s life has not been well-documented. Many things Sambuy discovers are serendipitous. She meets her octogenarian daughter Bubbles in Pune, who can throw no light on her mother. She, however, learns that the princess wanted immediate abolition of child marriage.

Amrit Kaur’s husband married again and she left him and her young family and moved to Paris in 1930, never to return. Although information on Amrit Kaur remains scanty, Sambuy pieces together her story by unearthing a wide array of people she seems to have known. The book is packed with those people, not all of whom are interesting. The result is there is not enough about Amrit Kaur in this stodgy book, which remains dull and dense. That’s a pity as the princess seems to have led an interesting life.

In Search of Amrit Kaur: An Indian Princess in Wartime Paris; Livia Manera Sambuy, Penguin Random House, ₹799.

The reviewer is a writer and journalist.

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