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Maharanis: A Family Saga of Four Queens

Maharanis: A Family Saga of Four Queens

by Lucy Moore

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Until the 1920s, to be a Maharani, wife to the Maharajah, was to be tantalizingly close to the power and glamour of the Raj, but locked away in purdah as near chattel. Even the educated, progressive Maharani of Baroda, Chimnabai—born into the aftermath of the 1857 Indian Mutiny—began her marriage this way, but her ravishing daughter, Indira, had other


Until the 1920s, to be a Maharani, wife to the Maharajah, was to be tantalizingly close to the power and glamour of the Raj, but locked away in purdah as near chattel. Even the educated, progressive Maharani of Baroda, Chimnabai—born into the aftermath of the 1857 Indian Mutiny—began her marriage this way, but her ravishing daughter, Indira, had other ideas. She became the Regent of Cooch Behar, one of the wealthiest regions of India while her daughter, Ayesha, was elected to the Indian Parliament.
The lives of these influential women embodied the delicate interplay between rulers and ruled, race and culture, subservience and independence, Eastern and Western ideas, and ancient and modern ways of life in the bejeweled exuberance of Indian aristocratic life in the final days both of the Raj, and the British Empire. Tracing these larger than life characters as they bust every known stereotype, Lucy Moore creates a vivid picture of an emerging modern, democratic society in India and the tumultous period of Imperialism from which it arose.
Through the sumptuous, adventurous lives of three generations of Indian queens—from the period following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 to the present, Lucy Moore traces the cultural and political changes that transformed their world.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
A maharani is the wife of a maharaja, and through the lives of four such Indian queens, in two linked families over three generations, Moore demonstrates the changing currents of Indian politics and customs. The story starts with Chimnabai, the first queen to break purdah, in 1913, and ends with her granddaughter Gayatri Devi. Devi was the third wife of the maharaja of Jaipur, but after Independence stripped the princes of most of their power she ran successfully for Parliament. She was also a socialite—Jackie Kennedy was a friend—and the book is generally as concerned with parties and polo matches as with politics. The changes of the twentieth century seem to have been easier on the women than on their husbands and sons. With only a few exceptions (including Devi’s husband, who had a heart attack during a polo match), the men died young, from complications of severe alcoholism.
Publishers Weekly
Drawing on accounts from the waning days of the Raj and the British Empire to the present, Moore (The Thieves' Opera) brings exhaustive research to bear on the stories of four Indian queens who used their power to help forge social change. Her fly-on-the-wall approach gives their triumphs and struggles immediacy. Refined Chimnabai began her marriage to the maharaja of the northern city of Baroda in purdah, which kept married women hidden from men other than their husbands, but after breaking purdah in 1913, she became a champion of women's rights. Sunity Devi, maharani of Cooch Behar (near what is now Bangladesh), forged a close friendship with Queen Victoria and wrote books on India's history for British audiences. Chimnabai's gorgeous daughter, Indira, rejected her arranged alliance in order to marry Sunity's son, and later ruled in her late husband's place as regent of state. Indira's daughter Ayesha defied her parents' wishes so she could become the third wife of the man she loved and was elected to India's parliament in a 1962 landslide. Today, she breeds polo ponies, works on conservationist campaigns and serves on the boards of schools she founded. "In their different ways," Moore writes, "they were icons, modernizers and revolutionaries... inspiring a redefinition of the role of women in modern India." The book's rich details make up for its sometimes stiff prose, as Moore explores everything from the women's elaborate fashions-silk chiffon saris, magnificent jewels and spangled veils-to the politics and strict traditions of India's aristocracy. Agent, Eric Simonoff. (Jan.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
India's transition to independence is usually treated through the lives of male political leaders, so it is refreshing to find freelance journalist Moore relating the story through the lives of four women from royal families. These royals ruled over ever shrinking domains known as princely states that were never under direct colonial rule. Their lives were in no way similar to those of their subjects, but their colorful stories do add an important dimension, royal as well as feminine, to modern Indian history. Unfortunately, Moore is no Antonia Fraser. Her gushing style and relentless emphasis on local color bury the complex lives of her subjects in interminable descriptions of costumes, jewelry, vehicles, and servants. Much of the book simply retells accounts found in published memoirs; additional insights are slight, ranging from truisms about romance to slightly sour observations of British narrow-mindedness. This work will appeal to readers who enjoy biographies of royalty and is appropriate for public libraries.-Lisa Klopfer, Eastern Michigan Univ., Ypsilanti Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The British historian examines the remarkable transition of India's female royalty from fairy-tale queens to activist powerbrokers as colonial fiefdoms merged into Asia's largest democracy. Moore (The Thieves' Opera, 1998, etc.) focuses on three ancient families, the Gaekwads, Narayans and Jaipurs, who ruled over separate Indian states endowed under British colonial rule as the 19th century closed with foreboding. Moore sets the stage meticulously, stressing the advantage British overlords sought by fostering traditional administration and all its observances, so as long trade revenues flowed unfettered to London. Actual policies, of course, were strictly dictated in a kind of offstage whisper, and Indian royal families had no choice but to carry on with the pageant. For the queens, including Chimnabai II of Baroda (born ca. 1872 as Garabai Ghatge), traditional burdens of their role included the concept of purdah: no maharani should be seen by anyone other than her husband or necessary body servants. They lived literally screened off from the world, even at public functions. Devotion to lord and master also included the implied obligation not to outlive him; failing that, widows were expected to climb aboard his funeral pyre in sati-an act, Moore relates, often undertaken as culmination of the union and not under duress. From this setting, the author moves on to Chimnabai's impulsive daughter, Indira, who defied her parents by actually marrying for love, and thence to Indira's daughter, Ayesha, who escaped purdah with finality by hobnobbing with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, running successfully for Parliament in 1962, and becoming a lifelong opponent of the populist Indira Gandhi. Throughit all, a gathering curse seemed to envelop the once-beloved maharajahs, who regularly fell from polo ponies or succumbed to generic alcoholism, leaving their magnificent ancient palaces empty and crumbling, with a little help from Mrs. Gandhi's rapacious tax collectors,. A stirring story of women strong enough to both embrace and defy tradition. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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Penguin Group
File size:
3 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Lucy Moore was born in London, raised in Massachusetts, and educated at Edinburgh University. She writes for a variety of magazines and newspapers.

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