In the summer of 1871, something thoroughly unusual transpired in princely Baroda. Its ruler had died the previous year, leaving behind a pregnant widow and an ambitious brother. The latter, whose ill-repute preceded him, had much to lose if the maharani produced a male heir. Naturally, the air was ripe with intrigue, and the brother questioned both the pregnancy of the widow as well as its legitimacy. She, meanwhile, revealed a determination far superior to what might be expected of a 17-year-old—fearing poison, the maharani refused to eat anything that was not cooked before her watchful eyes. And then, shocking everyone, she moved into the establishment of the local British representative, delivering her baby under the nose of this English military man.

Unfortunately for Jamnabai, her child was female. Triumphant, her rival now took power while she exiled herself with her infant. But it was not the end, for the man stepped straight into the bad books of the colonial state—in 1875, he was deposed, ostensibly for misgovernment, but also because of a (not convincingly proved) attempt to poison the British agent with crushed diamonds and arsenic. There were half a dozen potential heirs to choose from now, but these were all grown men—the British sought “someone of malleable age…who might be shaped according to the right ideas" (by which they meant less poison, more fidelity). Of course, it was awkward for them to openly select a new ruler, so Jamnabai entered the scene again. It was she who would adopt the man to occupy Baroda’s princely gaddi

Years later, when Sayajirao Gaekwad III, whose birth anniversary fell on 11 March, was firmly established as one of India’s great princes, a story became popular that explained his rise to prominence and splendour. He was an illiterate farmhand of 12 in 1875 when summons arrived for the Gaekwad relations to present candidates for Jamnabai’s consideration.

Arriving at the palace, his brothers and he were asked why they were there. The oldest and the youngest mumbled in confusion, but the middle child declared with just the right quantity of confidence, “I have come to become king." Jamnabai was impressed, and the boy was installed quickly as sovereign. Another version has the brothers at a feast with the maharani—the winner’s siblings acted like country bumpkins, but the future Sayajirao carefully observed Jamnabai, and lifted food to mouth like a prince.

Charming as these stories are, with a currency even today, they are also apocryphal. It certainly was the case that the man who would rule Baroda for 64 years was a nonentity at first, but his family had set its sights on power as soon as it became clear the previous maharaja would fall. In a petition to the viceroy, they disingenuously expressed hope that a deposition would not occur. But “if after the close investigation directed by your Excellency, it should be found necessary to depose His Highness", they added, they would be humbled if a successor were chosen from among themselves. That is how our protagonist arrived in Baroda, and behind his transformation into a prince lay British designs, as much as the favour of maharani Jamnabai.

By the time of his death in 1939, Sayajirao would become an icon. Under him, Baroda became a “model state" as he launched reform after reform. He abolished infant marriage but allowed the remarriage of widows; he established the Bank of Baroda, just as he founded what would become an iconic university. By 1907, primary schooling was declared free, and he sponsored B.R. Ambedkar’s education abroad, while, years earlier, he had sent financial aid to Jyotirao Phule. Over the years, he devolved power from Marathi elites from the Gaekwads’ homeland, to a bureaucracy dominated by native Gujaratis. And he dismissed criticism from Bal Gangadhar Tilak for his unorthodoxy, even as he openly praised that other nationalist, Mahatma Gandhi.

“Sayajirao was not an original thinker," the scholar David Hardiman has written, “but he was extremely receptive to the original thought of others." Where his princely pride needed to be asserted, he was capable of doing so; just as when men with good ideas sought free rein, he was happy to enable this. But if the British expected him to become a textbook case in “malleable" servility, he was anxious to prove them wrong. Indeed, successive viceroys found his attitude dangerous enough to have him tailed by British intelligence. In 1911, he was lambasted for breaching protocol at the famous Delhi durbar to honour George V and his consort. Where one set of princes held the folds of their ceremonial gowns, Sayajirao was accused of deliberately turning his back in the royal presence, the English press melting into screams of sedition.

To be clear, Sayajirao was not a flawless hero. His trips abroad (one lasting as long as 13 months) caused much dismay at home, and for all his scorn for the orthodoxy, he performed expiatory rituals on his return from foreign shores. He is famous for abolishing polygamy in his state, but this did not preclude his trying to arrange the marriage of his daughter with an already married prince. His wife, Chimnabai II, was a spirited woman—one who discarded purdah and moved about her palace on roller skates—but in the 1920s, there was trouble between them after the maharaja evidently formed a fondness for his European secretary. He was also more ruler than father, lamenting belatedly the tragic, avoidable loss of three of his male offspring.

But for all that Sayajirao’s was a remarkable tale. As the scholar Manu Bhagavan notes, he was good at “combining reform with resistance through the act of reclamation". Reclamation, that is, of Western ideas for Indian use. When he was only 13, Queen Victoria had styled him “Our Favoured Son of the British Empire"—by the time he died, the empire itself was in terminal decline. He was bombarded as a young man with Western lessons in government: 23 on the principles of administration; 27 on revenue matters; 18 on law; and so on. All these were designed to showcase him as an experiment: of British success on an Indian mind. But Sayajirao lived and died in the end as his own man—he was certainly no imperial exhibit.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

Close