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Heir and Their

Princely India, where travels to Europe, striking jewellery and portrait photography were everyone’s fascination, is a long-gone time. This is not an homage or a romanticism piece, but merely a chronicle of the lives of women who resided within palace walls of the era. Heiresses, often veiled behind dazzling Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels sets and sheer French chiffon. Some might call them unapologetically indulgent, yet they were modernists, breaking conventions and trooping the world, whilst still somehow being resolutely Indian.

Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar

Cloaked behind scandals, Indira Devi was the consort of Jitendra Narayan, Maharaja of Cooch Behar and a princess of the Baroda state by birth. Initially, she was to wed Madho Rao Scindia, the then Maharaja of Gwalior. However, as fate would have it, during their engagement Indira attended the Delhi Durbar. Here, she met Jitendra: the younger brother of the then Maharaja of Cooch Behar. Within days of meeting, they had fallen madly in love and decided to marry. In order to avoid a calamitous family dispute, the young princess took it upon herself to end the engagement to Madho Rao Scindia; an incredibly independent and brave act for an 18-year-old girl of the era. With five children and a princely state to run after the death of her partner after 9 years of marriage, observers often called her administrative skills mediocre, unhindered she went onto rule Cooch Behar for years to come often far away from Europe.


Renowned for her social grace and sartorial sense she is largely credited for the trend of wearing silk chiffon saris and making them a royal statement.  She first spotted the buttery smooth textile in Lyon, France, and being the unconventional person she was, asked if the width could be extended from 34 inches to 42 inches. Christening modern India, she wore her sarees with her favourite footwear customised by Salvatore Ferragamo, who in his autobiography had stated that once an order was placed to him by the Maharani for 100 pairs of shoes and among them an order was placed to make one of them out of diamonds and pearls from her own collection.


Maharani Sanyogita Devi of Indore

A visionary, a patron of the arts, an aesthete, an Indian royal with a passion for the European avant-garde, the Maharani of Indore was a living legend of the 20th century from both worlds. Maharani Sanyogita Devi and her husband the Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar of Indore were considered one of the chicest couples of the Jazz Age. They married in 1924 and gave birth to their first child, Princess Usha Devi, on October 20th, 1933 in Paris. Educated in England, the Maharaja and Maharani were fixtures amongst the international jet set of the 1920s and ‘30s; equally at ease in the gilded drawing rooms of New York, London and Paris. 

Celebrated as one of the era’s most stylish women, the Maharani would frequently appear at functions dressed by Vionnet, Schiaparelli and Lanvin. During couture presentations, she stood out amongst European and American clients in her custom French chiffon saris, elegantly perched on a gilt chair with a fur coat draped over her shoulders. The royal couple also had a deep interest in modern art and design, which won them the friendship of some of the greatest artists and designers of the era. Amongst the most memorable portraits of the Maharani were those by the celebrated society painter of the day, Bernard Boutet de Monvel, who sketched fashion for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar early in his career. Over the course of four years, he would create three striking portraits capturing the chic Maharani in French chiffon saris and elegant couture gowns.


Sita Devi of Baroda

Born into the Southern royal family of Pithapuram, Maharani Sita Devi was married off into another zamindari family at an early age, as was the custom to her generation. As with almost everything in life, destiny plays a huge role in who one meets and it was no different for Sita Devi who happened to have caught the fancy of Maharaja Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad of Baroda one fateful day at the Madras Races, which was the beginning of a life of extravagance and incessant worldly pleasures, where the world was her oyster. She went onto divorce her Hindu husband, converted to Islam and married the 8th richest man in the world, flouting many anti-bigamy laws and religious conventions.

At a time when most Indian ladies and Maharanis were pictured with their heads shyly covered under conservatism, the strong and staggering Maharani Sita Devi conflicted with the standard and was frequently seen at the Waldorf Astoria of New York or The Dorchester of London, with her hair thrown back to flaunt the extravagant earrings and necklaces. She is even known to patronise jewellers like Harry Winston and Van Cleef and Arpels. The Maharani delighted in the occasional cigarette, and it is alleged that even her cigarette holder was studded with rubies. The French industrial facility Saree and Co. was built in her respect and was shut after her passing in 1989. Living a pompously rich and lavish life, she went with no less than a thousand French chiffon sarees, everyone having a coordinating pair of shoes and a bag.


Princess Niloufer


Born in Ottoman Istanbul and ousted to France as a kid, the best of east and west. Princess Niloufer had never draped a sari until she arrived in India with her spouse, Prince Moazzam Jah, the second child of the incredible seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan. The wide-eyed, teenaged lady of the hour soon transformed into the style symbol of her time, planning and wearing saris and adornments that set the precedents for Indian blue-bloods and socialites.

It could be said that Niloufer pioneered the first Indo-Western fusion by having her silk saris decorated with striking designs, lace, and sequins — some by Lanvin in Paris, some by Madhavdas in Bombay. She additionally commissioned custom pieces from Indian weavers, requesting that they include wide, Banarasi brocade borders to conventional weaves. Princess Niloufer's impact went long ways past fashion. She was the principal lady from Hyderabad's illustrious family to attend social events and go all over town in the city. During World War II, the caring princess prepared as a nurse and helped the aid projects. She turned into an altruist, a backer of ladies' headway, and a role model for young Indian girls.

Yet, in photographs of her exciting Hyderabad life, she regularly has a contemplative, despairing look. The death of her maid, Rafat, due to complications in childbirth, propelled her to build a medical establishment to profit mothers and children. Unfortunately, she herself had stayed childless, and this definitely put a strain on the couple's marriage prompting divorce after which she moved back to France.

 

Sarees featured in this Maharani Chronicle:

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