The jet-setting Maharani from Alwarpet

Maharajah Surya Rao and Maharani Chinnamma Roads are two innocuous streets in Alwarpet commemorating the Rajah of Pithapuram and his wife. If his full name had been inscribed, it would have required several signposts, for he was Meherban-i-Dostan Sri Maharaja Ravu Venkata Kumara Mahipathi Surya Rao Bahadur Garu, Sircar, Rajahmundry Sircar and Maharajah of Pithapuram, CBE. She was Chinnamambadevi, now mutated into Chinnamma. The Pithapuram family when in Madras, lived at Dunmore House, at the end of Murray’s Gate Road.

To this couple, in this home on 12 May 1917, was born Sita Devi. Stunningly beautiful, she married the Zamindar of Vuyyur, and bore him three children. But greater things were in store for her. In 1943, at the Guindy Race Course, she met Pratapsingh Rao Gaekwar, Maharajah of Baroda and one of the richest men in the world. They fell in love and on the advice of the best legal brains she converted to Islam, divorced her husband, reconverted to Hinduism and married the Gaekwar. She was now HH Shrimant Akhand Soubhagyavati Sitadevi Sahib Gaekwar. He was already married and had several children through his first wife – Shanta Devi. Baroda State laws did not permit bigamy but nothing could be done when the Gaekwar cleverly argued that his State laws applied only to his subjects. In order to cool tempers, he, his new wife and their only son Sayaji Rao (nicknamed Princie) settled in Monte Carlo in 1946.

In order to fund their lavish lifestyle, the couple began making large withdrawals from the Baroda treasury. Many of the fabulous jewels from the Baroda collection were also spirited away. In 1947, when Baroda, along with all other princely states, became a part of independent India, Sardar Patel summoned the Gaekwar and ordered the return of all the jewels and the repayment of the money. Some pieces were returned with great reluctance. Furious at this, Patel chose to negotiate with the first Maharani in the Gaekwar’s absence. In 1951, Pratapsingh Rao was deposed as the titular Maharajah by the Government of India and replaced by his son.

In 1956, Sita Devi divorced Pratapsingh Rao. He moved to London and died there an embittered man. Given the citizenship of Monaco, Sita Devi and Princie settled there. She retained her title of Maharani and went around in a Rolls-Royce sporting the Baroda arms. Her jewel collection rivalled that of the Duchess of Windsor. Mother and son were fixtures at all high society dos in Europe and fashion magazines reported on them. Trouble came in the 1970s. Tax problems and a lavish lifestyle caught up with Sita Devi. Pieces from the Baroda jewel collection began appearing in the market. Shifting to Paris in the early 1980s, she lapsed into a coma, never to recover. Princie died under mysterious circumstances in 1985. His mother, who was to never to know of this, passed away in 1989.

It was a far cry from our Alwarpet. And she does bring it a whiff of glamour.

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