In the summer of 1913, The Sketch in London carried the picture of an exquisitely beautiful woman under the headline: “Not Engaged, After All". The lady in the photograph was Indira Raje, daughter of the Gaekwad of Baroda. Two years earlier, she had been betrothed with much fanfare to the maharaja of Gwalior, their proposed union cast as the coming together of India’s chief Maratha houses. But for Indira herself, the arrangement led to panic: Not only was her fiancé significantly older, he was already once married. From a life of relative freedom in Baroda and abroad, she would have to live in strict purdah as a junior wife. Her suitor was also, it appeared, a man of stringent exactness—conjugal visits, for instance, were precisely proposed for Thursday nights. When soon afterwards she met the charming heir-presumptive of Cooch Behar, Indira did the unthinkable: She sent word to Gwalior that the wedding was off.
It was a scandal that caused her family tremendous embarrassment, but what The Sketch was referring to two summers later concerned her new romance. The London press was by now abuzz with reports of Indira’s impending marriage to the prince of Cooch Behar, but the bride’s parents denied consent. Not only was the Bengali suitor different in caste and religious practice, his family was considerably lower in the Raj’s order of precedence. Indira was carted off to Europe and guarded closely, but despite such parental machinations, the couple remained unmoved. In the end, when it looked like she might run away and cause even more humiliation, the Gaekwads reluctantly let their daughter marry the man she loved. In August 1913, Indira Raje of Baroda became Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, the venue of her wedding being a dull registrar’s office in central London.
Indira was not, however, to enjoy much nuptial happiness. While her husband succeeded soon as maharaja of Cooch Behar, within a decade he was dead due to “alcoholic excess". In 1923, Indira became regent for her son, but only after warding off the ambitions of a brother-in-law who expected the office for himself. The rest of the Cooch Behar family was also a mess: Her late husband’s mother, despite a generous allowance, hoovered up debt in Britain and made “continuous demands for money", while some years later, a sister-in-law who had married an Englishman publicly declared bankruptcy, with a net worth of £8. With five children to raise, Indira also had to manage hostile powers in her durbar, some of whom saw her as an outsider. One particular grandee was in fact banished after circulating a petition that alleged, among other things, that the merry widow of Cooch Behar was involved with a Muslim aide.
Indira certainly did startle many by refusing to abide by conventional notions of how a female in her position ought to behave. In a British record that describes her as “a fascinating lady with a remarkable character", there is yet dismay that instead of settling down in Cooch Behar, she “made straight for London, which she has made her headquarters". Her social life was colourful, and she lost large sums of money gambling in continental casinos—but only after she dazzled everyone with a turtle, its back studded with gems, placed by her side for good luck. Reports submitted to the imperial government noted with disapproval her patronage of the notorious 43 Club (with its drugs and other forms of decadence), and rumours of romantic indiscretions caused even the English king to grow “much annoyed" with Indira. “She demoralized the youth of the town", we read, and the “notoriety she…gained by her loose style of living, her gambling, and her drinking propensities" led to firm orders, in the end, that she must retreat to India post haste.
When she returned to Cooch Behar in 1929, Indira had been away for two-and-a-half years—she had successfully extended her stay once by citing India’s bad climate as reason to carry on abroad. But if she wasn’t going to be allowed to live in England, she resolved to bring England to India. Grand tiger shoots and hunting parties were organized in the state: In 1935, the dukes of Northumberland and Norfolk, both senior British peers, visited Cooch Behar as the maharani’s guests, for instance, and one of the highlights in the palace was a rug made from the skins of 14 leopards shot by her daughter, Ila.
But long stints in India also channelled her energies towards matters of state: The Great Depression wreaked havoc on Cooch Behar, slicing away over a third of its revenue. But as the viceroy put it during the accession of her son to power in 1936, “in the competent hands of Her Highness the Maharani Regent", the state not only survived the crisis, but also managed to pay off long-pending debts.
Having handed over the reins of government, Indira soon returned to a life of glamour, even towards middle age being described as “one of the most beautiful" Indian princesses to enthral Western society. She threw sensational parties and continued to amaze and scandalize in equal measure—years ago, she had characteristically stunned reporters when, on the eve of the first flight by an Indian pilot from Britain all the way to the subcontinent, she appeared on the scene to smash a coconut and smear sandalwood paste on the aircraft’s propeller. In a speech delivered then, she also added matter-of-factly that while such a flight might be a feat in modern times, “aerial navigation of some kind" existed in “ancient India", as confirmed by the Ramayan.
But what really captures Indira’s personality is another tale from an airport elsewhere: Asked by an immigration officer inspecting her passport for a surname, the maharani replied with magnificent imperiousness, “I have no surname…I am Her Highness Indira of Cooch Behar."
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).