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Lafayette L1854
Neg. Date: None

copyright V&A

Siniti Devi, Maharani of Cooch Behar (1864–1932)

daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen – one of the leading lights of a westernising and rationalising movement within Hinduism.

Her marriage to the young Maharaja of Cooch Behar had only gone ahead when the reforming Hindus of her father’s organisation were assured that the wedding ceremony would be expunged of its idolatrous portions. The reformed beliefs of the Cooch Behar family so unsettled the orthodox that even a generation later, Princess Brinda of Kapurthala referred to them as “apostate Hindus.”

Indeed, in 1887 the Cooch Behar couple had overcome the Hindu taboo on crossing the kala pani – or “black water” as the ocean was referred to – to come to England for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887.

This normally would have involved a tremendous loss of caste which seems to have been recognised by their immediate acceptance into English royal circles.

Siniti Devi’s obituary in The Times mentions that she inherited from her father “intensity of feeling, warmth of heart, quick perceptions, and steadfast faith in the unseen.” The British colonial government looked upon the marriage of the 14-year old with favour considering Siniti Devi “a cultured girl who would be a help, not a hindrance, to [the Maharaja].”

Many Indian royals spent time in England – the Maharani called it “her second home,” and to overcome opposition from the viceregal administration they presented doctors’ notes stipulating the need for cool air for health reasons! The Cooch Behar royal couple were frequent visitors to England, with their four sons at school at Eton to gain “a thorough English education,” Close to the British royal family, the Cooch Behar’s visibly loved being in England and westernising their children with visits to the court, the opera, the theatre and of course the races at Ascot.

The Maharani was seen out and about in London in the company of “persons of the greatest politeness” nevertheless it was ground-breaking at the time for an Indian lady of high rank to wear structured European clothing. The fact that no images of the Maharani were reproduced in the press might indicate that the public in Cooch Behar were not yet ready to see just how westernised the Maharani had become.

During her stay in Cooch Behar in 1896 while Hans Heinrich was hunting elsewhere in India, Daisy was convinced that the Maharani guessed nothing of the Maharaja’s feelings for Daisy. Nevertheless, Daisy thought her “a bit mad” and “what a fool the woman is” and blamed the Maharaja’s unhappiness on the Maharani. Daisy noted “she watches him like a cat, is madly jealous, tells everyone nasty things about him (which is quite true as she has told me she wants to be thought European, & yet has not the ideas or the education of a European, & is very narrow minded.” After recounting the Maharani’s grievances and her desire for a separation from the Maharaja, Daisy concluded “she is the most discontented woman I ever met.”

In this image from 1902 the Maharani wears the gown of white satin (made by ‘a French milliner’) with 'Empire' wreath design embroidered in gold, ostrich feather fan, and tiara which she wore to the Coronation of King Edward VII on 9 August 1902. In her own autobiography, the Maharani for her part lists erroneously “the Pless couple” among a long list of royalties who visited Cooch Behar for the hunting but carefully points out, when recounting her experience at the coronation of 1902, that “I stood between Princess Frederica of Hanover and Princess Daisy of Pless... I heard that my tiara was voted the prettiest there.”

The Maharani outlived her husband by over twenty years and lived to see her first son reign for only two years before he drank himself to death in 1913.

She visited the Lafayette studio on at least three more occasions, in 1902, 1910 and 1921 when she had a series of portraits made, wearing the traditional Indian widow’s white and with her jewels removed, for her Autobiography of an Indian Princess, where she recounts the symbolism of entering into widowhood:

When I took off my bangles and they [the children] saw me in widow's dress they cried: "Mother, will you never wear bracelets again; will you never wear those beautiful ear-rings?“

"Yes," I said, "I will when I meet your father in the next world.”