Review: In Search of Amrit Kaur by Livia Manera Sambuy

ByNeha Kirpal
Feb 17, 2023 07:28 PM IST

Complicated family histories, a huge cast of intriguing characters including explorers and spies, the travails of WW2 Paris, and great tragedy all feature in the life story of Princess Amrit Kaur of Mandi

In 2007, Italian writer Livia Manera Sambuy travelled to Mumbai to write a profile on author Vikram Chandra. While visiting the Prince of Wales Museum in the city, she came across an alluring full-length portrait of Princess Amrit Kaur of Kapurthala. The caption claimed the princess had been arrested by the Gestapo in occupied Paris on the accusation of having sold her jewellery to help Jews leave the country. Reportedly, she survived less than a year of Nazi imprisonment. For the author, this photograph became “the spark of what was destined to become an engrossing pursuit.” It triggered her search for the truth about Amrit Kaur, as she navigated her complicated family history. Along the way, Sambuy encountered a huge cast of intriguing characters: bankers, jewellers, explorers and spies.

Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, talking to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur of Mandi in this photograph dated 01 March 1933. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Lord Willingdon, Viceroy of India, talking to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur of Mandi in this photograph dated 01 March 1933. (HT Archive)

352pp, ₹799; Chatto & Windus
352pp, ₹799; Chatto & Windus

Born in 1904, in the kingdom of Kapurthala, Amrit Kaur was the fifth and only daughter of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh Bahadur. Jagatjit Singh had a total of six wives in his lifetime: Harbans Kaur of Paprola, Parvati Kaur of Katoch, Lachmi Kaur of Bushahr, Rani Kanari (Amrit Kaur’s mother), Anita Delgado and Eugenie Grosupova. Amrit studied at the Clovelly-Kepplestone boarding school for girls in Sussex, where she had even directed an all-girl five-piece jazz band. After having lived such a sophisticated life, Amrit was forced into an arranged marriage with the 19-year-old Raja Joginder Sen Bahadur of Mandi. Not as educated as she was, he lived in a remote and traditional area of Punjab, which was filled with ignorance and superstition. “So here Amrit Kaur was, at this new juncture, a woman who’d read Flaubert and played jazz, living in a town that combined a fascinating distant past with a long history of mostly dull rajas,” writes Sambuy.

However, that didn’t stop the rani from following her heart. Between 1926 and 1931, Amrit’s name appeared among participants in several All India Women’s Conferences to discuss urgent reforms for women on the subcontinent. She was on the front lines in the battle for a woman’s right to education in India, and for raising the minimum marriageable age for girls. In 1928, she led a militant delegation to petition Viceroy Lord Irwin for the immediate abolition of child marriage. In 1931, she presided over the first All-Asian Women’s Conference in Lahore. Sambuy also notes that Amrit’s views on the caste system and women’s liberation were truly ahead of her time. In an interview in the Tribune, she said, “Our people can never advance unless our women do so,” the relevance of which echoes till this day.

Sambuy also travelled to Pune to meet Nirvana Devi of Bilkha, or Bubbles, Amrit Kaur’s daughter, who is now an octogenarian. Abandoned by her mother in 1933 when she was just four years old, Bubbles knew almost nothing about Amrit. Sambuy told her all that she had found out – “Squalor, prison, sickness, spies, Nazis, and a mother forced to beg for her life.”

Extravagant royal lives: Maharaja George Jivajirao Scindia going to the temple on 19 October 1937. (HT Archives)
Extravagant royal lives: Maharaja George Jivajirao Scindia going to the temple on 19 October 1937. (HT Archives)

Later, a performance artist called Ginger Rosser emailed the author from San Diego, California, saying that she had in her possession Amrit’s briefcase containing many of her personal and historical items – a kind of “museum of her life” that must be returned to her family. The author learnt that, in 1938, Amrit had left her belongings at the home of Louise Hermesch, an American widow and heiress. Amrit was in a relationship with Louise, whom she met when they were both arrested by the Germans in Paris.

While researching Amrit Kaur’s story, the author came across a number of other anecdotes about her subject’s two namesakes. Interestingly, one of Amrit Kaur’s older cousins was (another) Rajkumari Amrit Kaur. A heroine of the Gandhian nationalist movement, she spent three years in prison and became Health Minister in independent India. Amrit Kaur was also friends with the post-impressionist painter Amrita Sher-Gil who became the first star of twentieth century Indian art. Both women, hailing from Punjab’s aristocracy, had received a cosmopolitan upbringing while maintaining a strong connection to India.

Author Livia Manera Sambuy (Erina Digby/via
Author Livia Manera Sambuy (Erina Digby/via

The history of Kapurthala, the best known of the 14 states that made up the Punjab region, is also presented. Believed to be where the Kurukshetra War was fought and where Lord Krishna passed on the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita to Arjun, it was a significant principality. While stories of the extravagance of India’s royalty are well known, the author points out that it was the British who encouraged the maharajas to indulge in a life of unbridled pleasure. She sheds light on examples of enlightened Indian princes, who banned polygamy, encouraged the inclusion of students from all castes in schools, funded universities and elevated the status of women through education.

Heartwarmingly, the author’s quest helped an 80-year-old daughter connect with her remarkable mother. In the book’s Epilogue, Sambuy, who had a troubled relationship with her own mother, writes, “Reconciling Bubbles with her mother had been the key that set me free.”

This fascinating book, full of “history and mystery” makes for an intriguing read.

A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel

The views expressed are personal

Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium

Subscribe Now to continue reading
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
My Offers
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, June 06, 2023
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Register Free and get Exciting Deals