Last Modified: Sun, Dec 31 2017. 10 10 AM IST

The enduring legend of a Spanish dancer who became an Indian queen

The tale of Anita Delgado, a girl from Malaga who eventually became Maharani Prem Kaur, animates the Spanish imagination to this day

Jagatjit Singh, Maharaja of Kapurthala, saw Anita Delgado in nightclub performance when he visited Madrid in 1906 and fell in love with her.
Bhavya Dore

In the first painting the woman is reclined on a sofa, an olive-green sari wrapped snug across her body, her face framed by the hood of a pallu. In the adjacent painting the same woman is crowned by a diadem, standing tall and statuesque in a pale, low-cut dress. These portraits of Anita Delgado, one of the city’s most famous natives, now hang in the Museo de Malaga, where Andres Cabrera has suggested a stopover.

Before coming here this afternoon, Cabrera, 51, a city guide in Malaga, sighed heavily as he narrated the beguiling story of Delgado, a poor Spanish flamenco dancer who became an Indian royal in the first half of the 20th century. “The Maharaja of Kapurthala saw her and fell in love with her,” said Cabrera, a tall, bearded man pronouncing “maharaha” by interchanging the “j” and “h”, Spanish-style. “Imagine, a simple of girl became a Maharani.”

Jagatjit Singh was an already-married 34-year-old king with a passion for all things French when he visited Madrid for a royal wedding in 1906. Mesmerized after watching a nightclub performance featuring the then 16-year-old Delgado, he pursued her and had her educated in Paris and Brussels. They got married in 1907 and the following year he triumphantly returned to the small Punjabi kingdom of Kapurthala with a new wife—his fifth and allegedly his favourite. A Sikh ceremony followed and Anita Delgado became Maharani Prem Kaur. 

She was suddenly thrust from an ordinary existence into an orbit of wealth, power and status in an exotic foreign land. And as the captions alongside the gallery’s portraits indicate, the good life included “jaunts to Europe” when she commissioned “fashionable painters” to paint her.

Though it may be barely known or remembered in India, it’s a tale that inheres in Malaga, a seaside Spanish town once ruled for centuries by the Arabs and later conquered by Catholic kings. “At a time like that, a woman left and went to another faraway country,” said Montse Ogalla, 52, a local filmmaker. With a shudder of excitement, she added: “she was a woman, having an adventure!” 

People like Ogalla heard the story by word of mouth, but over time it began to recede. In the past two decades following half a dozen books, and the possibility of a film, it has definitively moved from localized legend into national attention.

Passion India, by Spanish writer Javier Moro, was published in 2005, a historical fiction that mounted imagined dialogue on the bedrock of two years of research. It tore up the charts. The tale contained everything: class climbing, a Pygmalion-esque makeover, palace decadence, culture shock and later rumours of infidelity. It practically wrote itself. 

As a boy, Javier Moro recalled his grandmother remarking by way of shorthand, that so and so was “wealthier than the Maharaja of Kapurthala”. “When they talked about wealthy people they used to say [that],” he said, on the phone from Madrid. “It was a Spanish saying, you see.” He didn’t think much of it until he met a distant cousin of the Maharaja during a research trip to Bhopal in the nineties. The ensuing conversation convinced him he had tapped a rich narrative vein.

But after completing Passion India, Moro was all set to give up writing and open a modern bakery. He had a growing family to support and bread offered the possibility of a steadier income than books, given that he expected this one to sell about 30,000 copies. It eventually went on to sell more than one and a half million, was reprinted 50 times and translated into a dozen languages. “So goodbye to my dream of becoming a baker,” he said. “I have to wait for my next life.”

Still, he wasn’t the first to sink his fangs into this romantic drama. In 1998 the writer Elisa Vázquez de Gey had already published Anita Delgado: Maharani of Kapurthala, an authorized biography drawing on a stash of private papers and letters given by Delgado’s niece. Interest surged and following reader questions she returned with two more books in 2005 and 2008. This year she translated Delgado’s original French diaries into Spanish. The interest in the dancer had become ever-green.

“The historical backdrops of her life fascinate the reader: the splendour of the world of the Maharajas, Spain at the beginning of the 20th century, Paris during the Belle Époque, both World Wars and the independence of India,” said de Gey, who functions as the official preserver of her memory, by email. “You have to imagine, she was a teenage girl from Andalusia, without much culture, who within just a few months goes from dancing in a vaudeville act to performing the functions of a princess in a far off country.”

For his part, Moro struggled to grasp why Passion India left women across Europe swooning. “Listen, for me it’s a bit of a mystery and I was surprised it was such a hit,” he said with disarming candour. He ventured a guess, all the same. “I think basically it touches an archetype of the little girl who has an opportunity to meet a prince,” he said. “I mean you know, who doesn’t want to marry a prince?” 

But as someone who has cultivated a body of work writing dramatized reality-based accounts—including the controversial, Sonia Gandhi-centred The Red Sari—that wasn’t all it was. “It was very unique to be able to tell the story of the end of the Raj and of the last maharajas of India through the point of view of a Spaniard,” he said.

He was one of the speakers at a day-long conference in Madrid in October centred on Delgado, where her granddaughter also spoke. The 250-seater auditorium was full to capacity and largely comprised women. “Somehow this character fascinates women,” said Moro. “It has touched a chord in the female psyche somewhere.”

The seminar was hosted by the women’s group Circulo Orellana as part of its efforts to revisit trail-blazing Spanish women. “We try to organize such programmes for the purpose of collective memory and to put their lives in perspective, to recognize their work and their values,” said Leticid Espinosa De Los Monteros,the Circle’s president. “It is not easy to go to another place, another culture, another life,” she continued. “It requires courage.”

De Gey explored some of these dimensions, seeking to imbue her narrative with an agency that popular memory had perhaps denied her. Delgado lived between two religions, spoke five languages, travelled the world and even helped with First World War efforts, by organizing winter wear for Kapurthala troops and creating a relief fund for widows and orphans.

Everyone agrees her story was extraordinary, but dispute has dogged some of the details. In Moro’s account she had an affair with one of her step-sons and was banished to Europe to eke out the rest of her days. De Gey on the other hand claims she carried out her duties as Rani “with serenity and discretion” and “when the distance between her and her husband became insurmountable they both decided that she would return to Europe”.

In any case, after 18 years in India, and having a son with the Maharaja, Delgado moved back (there was no official divorce) and died in Madrid in 1962 where she is buried. Her son, Ajit Singh, arranged for royal emblems to be placed on her tomb: a crown of a Sikh dagger and a crucifix.

Moro’s book evoked sharp reactions from one of the Maharaja’s descendants in India—Tikka Shatrujit Singh threatened to sue him and said that the book had presented a “scandalous portrayal”. A grand nephew of Delgado, Manuel Lucas Sanchis, also wrote an open letter saying the book contained “a great number of errors, frivolities and mediocrities intended only to provide a more saleable image to the protagonist and her world”.

Delgado’s only son Ajit died in the 1980s, and Kim Akhtar, a daughter he allegedly had through a brief affair, later returned with her own book, The Maharani’s Hidden Granddaughter. (Despite repeated efforts, neither Singh nor Akhtar could be reached for comment for this story.)

All the same, the legend of Delgado never quite caught on in India, as it did elsewhere. “Well she was a minor character and spouse of a minor maharaja,” said Moro.“Kapurthala was not a biggie.”

Abroad though, interest in the saga was triggered afresh when some of her jewels were put up for auction in 2007 by Christie’s in the UK. Talks of a film have continued to circulate in the ether. Rights for two of de Gey’s three books have been sold. At one point Penelope Cruz held the rights to Passion India and was to play Delgado. Now Shekhar Kapur has shown interest in filming it as a mini-series, according to Moro.

Whether or not she is immortalized on screen, Delgado continues to animate the Spanish imagination. One autumn evening a group of women from Malaga joined in to ooh and aah when her name was mentioned. “Si, si si,” they declaimed in unison, when asked if they knew that story. “She was poor and ordinary, he was rich,” said Rosario Martinez, 75, summing up its enduring power. “It was like a fairy tale.”

Topics: Anita DelgadoMaharani of KapurthalaJagatjit SinghMaharaja of Kapurthalaflamenco dancer

First Published: Sat, Dec 30 2017. 11 20 PM IST

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