When Anita Delgado and her husband, the Maharajah of Kapurthala, met Charles Chaplin in Hollywood, in 1915, a savage war was tearing Europe apart.
The exotic couple, she with her porcelain white skin and brown hair, he tall, dark and splendid in his gala uniform and turban attracted as much or even more attention than the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies of our days. Known for her simplicity and almost magic ways of communicating with people even when the foreign language might have been a natural barrier, as Anita and Jagatjit Singh travelled the world, paparazzi followed them all around. Whether they were in Hollywood socializing with movie stars, Buenos Aires to dance the tango of Carlos Gardel or London to receive the Grand Cross of the Indian Empire from George V as a reward for Jagatjit’s loyalty and contribution to the cause of the war (Anita’s husband refused the sum the Crown owed him, almost one million pounds) , the press followed them religiously, bombarding Anita with embarrassing questions, mostly related to her private life as the wife of a Sikh prince. Or just plain silly ones, like, “princess, is it true that you eat snake every day?”, as a French reporter would ask her in Marseille.
Back in Paris, where Anita’s parents and sister joined the couple, they bought Cartier watches – the new Santos Dumont wrist model named after the famous Brazilian aviator who on October 23 1906 had achieved the dream of flying his heavier-than-air aircraft (named 14 Bis), before a large crowd of witnesses for a distance of 60 meters (197 ft) at the height of two to three meters (10 ft). Dumont and the Maharajah had become friends in an early visit by His Highness.
Anita was born in Malaga and at the time the Indian prince met her, she and her sister Victoria were curtain raisers (which meant they danced a little flamenco between shows and at intermissions to entertain the audience) at the Central Kursaal, a new café just inaugurated in Madrid; he in town to participate in the celebrations of Don Alfonso XIII’s wedding to the English princess Victoria Eugenie of Battemberg.
Family and friends freely discussed whether or not Anita’s parents should allow the foreign noble to take her away as the Maharajah made no secret of his love for the Spanish girl. The first step was to guarantee she would be legally married; that was the only way to make sure his intentions were honorable. As her father would point out, no marriage no Anita. In the highly politicized environment of the Kursaal, those familiar with the Delgados’ dilemma plotted the entire thing by the time the wedding had been scheduled: they were just allowing Anita to leave Spain so that she, once in India, could instigate her royal husband against England. Then India would declare war on England, win the conflict and Spain would finally feel avenged for having lost Gibraltar to Great Britain – off you go, Anita!
A very colorful description of her trip from Marseilles to Bombay follows. Aboard the S.S. Aurore at the age of seventeen , accompanied by Mme. Dijon, hired by the Maharajah as her lady companion and greatly responsible for polishing Anita’s social skills, her beauty did not go unnoticed on the memorable cruise. A couple of suitors, without knowing the Spanish young lady was promised to marry the prince of Kapurthala, tried in vain to gain her attention and favors. Disembarking in Bombay, the new reality that engulfed Anita was something few Europeans ever dreamed of experiencing.
As the years passed, Anita would be able to communicate well in Urdu (one of the languages spoken in the Punjab), English, French and Spanish. Although at one point, in the letters she exchanged with her family in Spain, she begged for a copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in Spanish, as she feared her Spanish was fading away – she could no longer speak her mother tongue with the same fluency and speed.
Spanish writer Javier Moro’s Passion India (Pasion India for those who care to read the original in Spanish – Amazon.com carries both versions, used) is an absolute delight. Moro is the master of telling a true story as if it were a novel; no one does it with such elegance and yet committed to the historic facts. Also by Moro, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, Paths of Freedom and The Globalization of Poverty.
The India Moro describes, through the eyes of Anita Delgado (in 1915 she would publish a book, in French, Impressions de mes voyages en Inde – Impressions of my travels in India) was even more exotic and mysterious than we might think of that country now, in the era of outsourced call centers in Delhi or Bangalore and Bollywood movies made in Mumbai (former Bombay).
Anita Delgado is as pretty as we can imagine a female hero of any grandiose romantic tale – as the many photos in the book attest. With a strong character and a kind heart, independently thinking Anita was often too much for both her husband’s conservative India and her parents’ Catholic Spain of 1900-1920, which was precisely what may have attracted her husband in the first place. A Sikh, born and raised with one foot deeply set in the traditions of his country and the other in the ebullient cultural environment of Europe, travelling between continents often and extensively (not to mention expensively), the typical Indian wife – or a group of them (Anita became wife number five, although the first four lived in a separate palace, the zenana , financially and medically cared for, but apart from their husband’s official home and life) – was no longer satisfactory to Jagatjit Singh. At the age of thirty six, the Maharajah wanted a wife who could appreciate and delight in the world as much as he did; with whom he could share thoughts and plans for the future of his people and land and, of course, who would make him look good in public, mainly to Western eyes.
Jagatjit Singh was as remarkable a husband as Anita Delgado became a wife. A man of vision, perpetually in love with European costumes, arts, science and architecture, he managed to build his wife a French palace for home, at the foothills of the Himalayas, named L’Elysee (after the French presidential residence), completed in 1909.
However, to the eyes of the British rulers, the union between an Indian prince – the Maharajahs were “concessions” distributed by Great Britain in order to secure political and economical support in India – and a Western woman was not such a good thing. It threatened to disrupt the order and therefore the stability of the crown in the colony. It was not in the best interest of England that a surge of Indian princes suddenly decided to marry affluent and modern European ladies. For years, the same British authorities Jagatjit Singh so much wished to impress, refused to recognize Anita Delgado as the Maharani of Kapurthala, his legitimate wife. And when the official acceptance one day came, Anita no longer cared for what the British thought of her and her marriage. She had moved on and matured.
Famous for successfully organizing social and charitable events – everybody wanted to see the Maharajah’s charming Spanish wife – in 1914 Anita transformed her own house, L’Elysee, it’s verandas, rooms and porches into a sewing factory, producing coats, gloves, hats and heavy pants for the brave Sikh soldiers her husband offered England to fight WW I in Europe. And when the news started pouring in that his men were dying like flies in frozen and distant battle fields beyond their comprehension, Anita joined her husband in a visit to the front, attempting to bring some type of comfort to the soldiers who had become her people.
To them Anita spoke in Urdu, in a Red Cross field hospital in France, promising the Maharajah was enhancing the financial aid to their families back home, that a cargo ship of condiments was on its way to make their lives less unbearable, as well as a pandit and a mufti to make sure their rituals would be followed in case of death – all commitments honored by His Highness the Maharajah. It’s a very touching passage, as the Spanish girl proves to have evolved into a real leader, worth being called the Maharani of Kapurthala. To those who witnessed Anita Delgado’s visit, she was the real princess, as foreign as she may have looked; and not the other four wives conveniently protected from the world’s misery behind the walls of the zenana . For those Sikh soldiers, physically and emotionally wounded, as Javier Moro writes, “the links of spirit were stronger than those of blood”.
The curtain of Anita Delgado’s story closes in tragedy. As a scandal of proportions never to be equaled in British India erupts, she is forced to leave the country behind. The story of her life, her one only son Ajit and her incredibly wealthy husband ends in melancholy just like the days of British occupied India; with an air of perfumed sadness lingering in the air, of beautiful and exquisite things gone by. In the end, it’s clear the girl from Malaga, beyond all the pomp and circumstance of her royal years in India, had loved that country with all her heart.
Passion India was another of those books whose last page I read dreaming someone in Hollywood would have the great idea of turning it into a movie script for the big screen. And I already have my candidate for the Anita Delgado part, in her adulthood: Penelope Cruz. Cruz’s husband, Senor Javier Bardem, could also very well play the role of Jagatjit Singh, the Maharajah of Kapurthala, who passed away peacefully in his sleep at the age of seventy-seven.