In search of Amrit Kaur: Preserving the identity of a princess who suffered erasure from collective imagination

How it took Italian journalist Livia Manera Sambuy many years of research across three continents to dig up some astonishing facts about her life

Photo: Lafayette/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Photo: Lafayette/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By Mariella Radaelli

Published: Thu 20 Apr 2023, 4:46 PM

A 1924 photograph of Her Royal Highness Rani Shri Amrit Kaur Sahib eclipsed all the other portraits of maharajas and maharanis displayed in a Mumbai museum that winter of 2007 when the Italian journalist Livia Manera Sambuy sought refuge from the city heat on an early afternoon. Manera Sambuy had boarded the plane for India for a few days after her brother's funeral. She had to be in Mumbai for a work assignment she couldn't postpone, an interview with Indian novelist Vikram Chandra.

That photo portrait in the museum was hypnotic, and she couldn't stop staring at it. The image of a young Amrit Kaur, Rani of Mandi, was part of a photography exhibition on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Lafayette, an Irish photographer with a French pseudonym, had taken the photos. Amrit Kaur was born in 1904, the fifth child of the Maharajah of Kapurthala, a state in Punjab. A figure of surprising modernity, she was so beautiful and regal in that "translucent sari, its edges embroidered with gold or silver thread — hard to say, in a black and white photo," Manera Sambuy writes in a creative nonfiction book, In Search of Amrit Kaur: A Lost Princess and Her Vanished World, recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The book was originally published in Italian last year by Feltrinelli as Il Segreto di Amrit Kaur.

The book was originally published in Italian last year
The book was originally published in Italian last year

The Indian princess exuded a mysterious charm and wore relatively little jewellery in that photo. There was a caption under the picture describing a few elements of a tragedy. That brief description induced Mrs Manera Sambuy to engage in an epistemological search that grew progressively obsessive once back home in Europe. Livia Manera Sambuy wanted to know the whole story.

It took her multi-year research across three continents to dig up some amazing facts about Amrit Kaur's life. Finally, she discovered the truth. Manera Sambuy tells the story as a transformative mystery and an invaluable gift. There's a narrative flow, twists and turns in this compelling narrative bridging the East and the West. There's a feeling of loss, the fire that raged the world in the 20th century, and an oasis of dreams.

We met with the author, who tells Khaleej Times. how through her tireless research, she tried to ensure the identity and remembrance of a princess who suffered a manipulation of memory or even a suppression of memory. The ancient Romans would call this damnatio memoriae, damnation or condemnation of memory they reserved to any citizen who had brought disgrace upon the state. In Search of Amrit Kaur is a powerful read that enriches our minds.

Livia Manera Sambuy
Livia Manera Sambuy

Q) The idea of the book grew obsessively in you after being bewitched by a photographic portrait of some mysterious, unseen force. It created a powerful sense of infatuation. Something to do with the face of the Indian princess that seemed pensive and looked like an inconsolable angel?

I was first struck by her beauty and by the fact she looked so young yet melancholic. She was very different from the characters around her: Those mostly well-fed and heavily bejewelled men. But the caption accompanying her portrait, dated 1924, triggered my curiosity. It read that such an ethereal woman was the daughter of the Maharaja of Kapurthala and the wife of the Raja of Mandi; she studied in England and France; her family of origin was Francophile, and the princess herself spent the 1930s in Paris, where she remained until the arrival of the German forces. The photo caption also said that the Kapurthalas had an outstanding collection of jewels and that Princess Amrit Kaur was arrested in 1940 by the Gestapo for selling her gemstones to help Jewish friends flee France. According to a letter addressed to one of the wives of the Maharaja of Kapurthala, Amrit Kaur was deported to a Nazi internment camp, where she survived only one year. No one had ever told that terrible yet extraordinary story. That is why I decided to find out more.

Q) But you discovered that after her arrest, Princess Amrit had ended up in a prison camp in Besançon, in eastern France, together with thousands of alien enemies, British citizens residing in France. You also found that she did not die one year after her release, as the caption of the photo on display read, but she survived for a few more years in England, where she passed away in 1948 from cancer. Why was the very little information available inaccurate and misleading?

Because they had tried to muddy the waters — I am not referring to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which curated the exhibition. Amrit Kaur's story was much more complex than the caption mentioned, which understandably reflected the official version given by a part of her family. Some things were true — the arrest, for example, and imprisonment — others were just smoke and mirrors.

Q) The young princess left India at twenty-nine, abandoning her family, including her two children. In the 1930s, what pulled Amrit to leave her country to go to Europe, which was about to become the scene of universal pain? After years of research, have you satisfied all the haunting questions about Amrit Kaur's life, or have some remained unanswered?

Yes, absolutely. It took me many years, but I finally found the real story. That family abandonment in 1933 had to be a “six-month holiday” from a miserable marriage. However, everything changed on her arrival in Europe, but I can't say what — to tell it here would spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that from that moment, a path to women's liberation began, in some ways, far ahead of its time.

Q) The first document you found on Amrit Kaur is an October 1927 interview in an American newspaper, the New York Herald Tribune, which shows that she was at the forefront of the battle for women's rights in India, already in the twenties. She fought against child marriage and rejected polygamy in her marriage, celebrated in Kapurthala in 1923 when she became the Princess of Mandi. Her daughter Bubbles was five months old when Amrit's husband took on a second wife in 1931. At that point, Amrit didn't think twice about leaving. Regardless of the further information we won't reveal in this context, do you believe her feminism in the Pre-Independence era may have contributed to her damnatio memoriae or erasure?

No, I don't think India wanted to cover up its proto-feminist movement of the 1920s. Instead, they tried to obliterate the memory of a strong-minded, intelligent, and cultured woman with oblivion. We must understand that Amrit Kaur was born into a Sikh family, and Sikhs believe in the equality of men and women. And she has always behaved accordingly, with an additional authority coming from being born a princess and becoming a queen with her marriage. She was not a woman who let herself get pushed around.

Q) After almost a year and a half of research, you went to Pune, Maharashtra, to meet Bubbles, the now elderly and nearly blind daughter of Princess Amrit. The scars of her childhood traumas were still hurting. That deep wound caused by her mother physically abandoning her as a child. You went there only to find out she knew nothing about her mother. Despondency and disbelief also seemed to have accompanied your subsequent visits to Bubbles' home. Did you feel a sense of frustration or failure at the difficult task of unearthing the secrets of her mother's past and piecing together her fragmented mosaic life tiles?

Frustration and disbelief, yes. Despondency and sense of failure, no. It astounded me that Bubbles wanted me to fly all the way to India only to tell me that she knew nothing about her mother, who had left her when she was 4.In truth, Bubbles wanted to understand what information I gathered. I told her about my initial searches in the French and English archives. But Bubbles' subsequent attempts to help me, by putting me in touch with relatives she thought could help me, were disheartening because no one wanted to talk to me. I didn't understand why, but it was clear that somebody had decided to erase Amrit Kaur from the collective memory a long time ago. She had rebelled and left home: Her courageous choice had embarrassed the family.

Q) What memories remain with you of the mountainous Mandi, a city in Himachal Pradesh in the western Himalayas that you visited to experience where Amrit lived through her unhappy marriage? That valley of the Upper Beas had "the reputation of being one of the most beautiful in India," you write, and even now, you can breathe Tibet's air and culture.

Mandi has remained as it looked in the 1920s: a small medieval town with hundreds of temples and wooden houses. It is an austere place but also magical because it seems to belong to another era. Mandi is very rich in history. It struck me that it was precisely in Mandi that Alexander the Great had to end his conquest of Asia when his exhausted troops mutinied and refused to go farther.

Q) Princess Amrit Kaur shares the full name of the former Health Minister of India who had embraced the thoughts and vision of Mahatma Gandhi. The politician had worked as Gandhi's secretary for 17 years and spent three years in prison with him. Were the two distant cousins?

Yes, they were. The politician belonged to a branch of the family that converted to Christianity. The two families took different directions due to dynastic reasons and religious matters.

Q) Amrit became an adept of the Theosophical Society even before leaving India, you find out. You saw Amrit's membership certificate signed by theosophist and women's rights activist Annie Besant, secretary of the English section and responsible for the esoteric movement in India. It is fascinating because women received the lion's share of attention at the Theosophical Society, founded in New York in 1875 by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

As a historian of King's College London told me, the Theosophical Society was a kind of elegant club of people who were either very cultured (it included several artists) or very cosmopolitan. And, of course, Amrit Kaur was both.

Q) The Theosophical Society was an eccentric and eclectic spiritual school that profoundly influenced modern art, particularly abstract art. Many artists were Theosophical adepts. Here you introduce the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, spiritual master, diplomat, and candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, who retired to Naggar in 1927 in one of the princess homes. He and his wife Helena translated The Secret Doctrine, Madame Blavatsky's masterwork, into Russian. Can we hypothesise a deep friendship between Amrit and the Roerichs?

Definitely. The Roerichs and Amrit used to hang out with each other often. The Roerichs were big snobs who loved entertaining important people, ranging from Mandi royalty to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Scholars and travellers from different countries came to visit them. One of Nicholas Roerich's sons, the painter Svetoslav Roerich, married the best Indian actress of the time, Devika Devi.

Q) You create many micro portraits of spies, visionaries, gurus, and entrepreneurs whose stories live intertwined with that of Amrit or Amrit’s family. This multitude of characters experience the shocking tide of events from modernism to the cruelty of Nazism while on the India front, you follow the thread of the Raj era, its dissolution with the Independence of India and Partition, and the progressive transformation of the princely families’ life resulting from the loss of the right to privy purses abolished by Indira Gandhi in 1971 – Amrit’s heirs embody this new way of life. In addition to telling the mystery of an Indian princess, is your book also the story of nations and peoples trying to free themselves from the dust of suffering?

I would rather say it is the twilight story of a world: The end of the British Empire; the rubble of World War II in Europe; the horrors of the Holocaust, and, in parallel, the violent pangs of Partition accompanying the birth of an independent Indian nation in 1947, orchestrated by Viceroy Mountbatten clumsily and hastily, which created deep divisions in the country. But I also wanted to tell what happened to the Indian royals of the minor states, such as Mandi and Bilkha, which found themselves unprepared for change, as Bubbles and her husband, the raja of Bilkha, experienced. As you will have understood, the book’s underlying theme is ‘loss’: of loved ones, possessions, and status. And how people like Bubbles have reacted to this change by adapting themselves with great dignity and fidelity to family values.

Q) The mystery of the jewels of the Punjab princess (did she sell them or not, did she take them with her or leave them in Mandi?) commingle with intriguing and resilient stories of Western jewellers such as the Cartiers, the Van Cleef & Arpels and the Rosenthals who lived the tragic reality of the Holocaust but also worked hand-in-glove with the Indian princes during the British Raj. What story most surprised and moved you?

All three are amazing stories: Jacques Cartier, who at the beginning of the 20th century learned Hindustani to travel from one royal palace to another to present the Maison Cartier jewels. Or Renée Puissant, the daughter of Alfred Van Cleef and Esther Arpels, who in 1942 committed suicide in a hotel in Vichy when she understood her arrest was imminent because she was Jewish. But perhaps the most incredible story is that of the Rosenthal brothers, who emigrated from the Caucasus mountains first to Paris, then to Venezuela, Bahrain, and Bombay, becoming the leading pearl dealers. Leonard Rosenthal tried to control the pearl market by buying almost all the pearls in the primary production sites. The Rosenthal built immense fortunes, only to lose them in war and rebuild them again. They were great adventurers but also people capable of grandiose dreams.

Q) What was your main goal in writing the story?

The initial purpose was to discover the true story of Amrit Kaur, to focus on it, and put it in historical context. But after I met with Bubbles, I also aimed to research to help this wounded woman who is now almost at the end of her life. She is a wonderful ninety-two-year-old lady. I immensely admire her, and I feel great affection for her. I wanted to help her understand why her mother abandoned her and make peace with her memory. Bubbles was the guiding star of my literary adventure.

Q) You write, "Reconciling Bubbles with her mother had been the key that set me free." Was writing this book therapeutic? Did it shed light on your relationship with your mother? You mention her in the last chapters.

No doubt. Even before embarking on this story, I struggled with the psychological consequences of maternal abandonment for many years. Helping Bubbles didn't help me reconnect with my mother, but it freed me from the long-lasting pain caused by our separation.

Q) The epilogue is introduced by a verse by American modernist poet E.E. Cummings: “For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it is always our self we find in the sea.” Does it hint that the self-analysis has concluded? Or is that an invitation to a journey that turns our eyes within, to our inner world?

I recognise myself a lot in those Cummings’ lines. It is like saying that after so many years of research on three continents, to reconstruct a story that had attracted me perhaps also because it was very far from my world, in the end, I discovered that it belonged to me, profoundly. Instead, it revealed something to me about myself I didn’t know I was looking for.

Q) You found a crocodile briefcase with the princess’ initials inscribed in gold. The brief bag is the “museum of Amrit’s life” containing personal documents, letters, telegrams, and notebooks announced in a revealing letter from a former burlesque dancer who moves the setting of Amrit’s biography to California and then back to England where Amrit’s encounter with an American heiress widow, Louise, marks her rebirth towards emancipation. But joy will turn into the pain of prison camps. Now your book preserves the memory of Amrit Kaur; however, her beautiful image remains deliberately out of focus. Is it blurry because you wanted to touch the vanity of all our illusions? Ultimately, everything is māyā; everything is an illusion because everything is subject to change, decay, and differentiation. Only what does not undergo any changes — only the eternal — is true and real?

Your interpretation is beautiful. Each reader makes meaning. But Amrit Kaur’s image remains blurred because a few traces of this lady have survived. This book was an experiment: to tell the story of a woman erased from history through a mosaic of characters and historical events that have crossed and defined her path. I wanted to bring back to life her vanished world and her through it.

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