Monday 16 July 2018

Obituary: Rajmata Krishna Kumari

Last reigning maharani of Jodhpur who became a champion of women's rights in post-independence India

TEENAGE BRIDE: Princess Krishna Kumari as a young woman. Photo: UK National Portrait Gallery
TEENAGE BRIDE: Princess Krishna Kumari as a young woman. Photo: UK National Portrait Gallery

Rajmata Krishna Kumari, who died last Tuesday aged 92, was the queen mother of the royal family of Jodhpur and the last reigning maharani of the Indian princely state, from 1947 to 1949. After the death of her husband, Maharaja Hanuwant Singh, in a plane crash in 1952, she acted as regent for her son, Maharaja Gaj Singh II.

She was born Krishna Kumari, princess of Dhrangadhra, now in the Indian state of Gujarat, on February 10, 1926, the daughter of Maharaja Sir Ghanshyamsinjhi Ajitsinhji Sahib Bahadur (1889-1942), and was educated by British governesses and at the Dhrangadhra Palace school with her brothers and male cousins.

The school was supervised by Jack Meyer, later headmaster of Millfield, who, as one of her brothers recalled, drilled them in the dates of William the Conqueror and William Rufus, but taught them nothing about the history of India: "His interest began (and perhaps ended) with Clive. I doubt if he'd heard of the Veda or Emperor Ashoka or even of yoga."

The ruling house of Dhrangadhra belonged to the Jhala Rajputs, a warrior clan who originated in Baluchistan and came to India in the 8th century.

In more recent times, the kingdom contracted alliances, through marriage, with the wealthier princely state of Jodhpur.

However when, in 1943, Krishna Kumari married Yuvraj (Crown Prince) Hanuwant Singh of Jodhpur, it was part of a deal that also required her brother, Meghrajji III, Maharaja of Dhrangadhra, to marry Hanuwant Singh's adopted sister, Brijraj Kumari.

While Krishna Kumari was considered a beauty, Brijraj Kumari was rather less so and, being adopted, her status was questionable. Nonetheless, after initial hesitation, Meghrajji agreed to the match on the ground that it would strengthen ties between the two Hindu-Rajput kingdoms.

Krishna Kumari was 16 when she married the 20-year-old heir to the throne of Jodhpur at the Suraj Mahal Palace in Dhrangadhra and she recalled being so nervous that she lost her voice and appetite. The ceremonies lasted several days, at the end of which she was whisked away to Jodhpur with the groom in a fleet of white Rolls-Royces.

She might well have been nervous because her husband, a tall, portly figure known to friends as "Big Boy", had something of a reputation as a playboy and an eccentric given to emotional outbursts. He succeeded to the throne of Jodhpur on his father's death in 1947. After independence in 1949, when the maharajas lost political power, he would be one of the most progressive former rulers in adapting to the new political climate.

In 1948, however, the maharaja took as a second, though unofficial, wife, a 19-year-old Scottish nurse called Sandra McBryde, with whom he travelled to England. At the time when Krishna Kumari was giving birth to his son and heir, Gaj Singh Rathore, in Jodhpur, the maharaja and Sandra were ensconced in a suite in Claridges.

The maharaja's second marriage ended, however, after he fell in love with the singer and actress Zubeida, a Muslim divorcee whom he installed in Jodhpur as his mistress and, despite opposition from his family, married in 1950. They had a son, Hukam Singh, also known as Tutu Banna.

In 1951 the maharaja decided to stand in the first Indian general election.

Nehru had threatened to withdraw the Privy Purse (state subsidy) if any of the maharajas stood for election, so Hanumant Singh voluntarily gave up his allowance and took to the skies in his six-seater light aircraft, often accompanied by Zubeida, to canvass as an independent candidate for the seat of Jodhpur. He won, but posthumously, for on January 26 1952 he and Zubeida were flying dangerously low when the plane hit power cables and crashed, killing both passengers instantly.

The long-suffering Krishna Kumari, with whom the maharaja also had two daughters, stepped into the breach and brought up her husband's son by Zubeida. Perhaps not surprisingly, the boy grew up to be a troubled young man and in 1981 he met a gruesome end when he was found beheaded on the streets of Jodhpur - reportedly killed in a mysterious encounter with a group of sword-wielding assailants. The crime remains unsolved.

In the meantime, following her husband's death, Krishna Kumari took over as regent for her four-year-old son, Maharaja Gaj Singh II.

Recognising the new realities, she sent him to England to be educated at Cothill House, then Eton College and finally Oxford, where he graduated with a degree in PPE in 1970. "She didn't want me growing up in a palace, with palace retainers, thinking nothing had changed," Singh recalled recently.

The new maharaja went on to become a most progressive and entrepreneurial custodian of his inheritance, converting many of Jodhpur's palaces into luxury hotels.

His mother, meanwhile, became a champion of women's rights and girls' education, collaborating with her son to found the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girls Public School, which is regarded as one of the best in India, and the Rajmata Krishna Kumari Girls Hostel, a women's welfare centre, in Jodhpur. In 1971 she stood as an independent for the Jodhpur seat in elections to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's bicameral Parliament, winning with a record margin of votes. She retired from the Lok Sabha in 1977.

Her children survive her.

© Telegraph

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