Image & Narrative contributed by Sawant Singh, Mumbai
This is an image of my grandmother Kanwarani Danesh Kumari photographed in Patiala, Punjab around 1933.
She would have been 20 or 21 years old at the time. It was photographed by R.R. Verma, a Photo artist from Cawnpore (Kanpur). Formally, she was addressed as ‘Rajkumari Bibiji Danesh Kumari Sahiba’. This is the only photograph I have of her in my possession, even though my memory of her is vastly different from it.
I remember her as a simply clad, dignified, exceptionally proud woman, who would spend her time gardening, shopping for groceries in the market, or chatting away with the gardener & her domestic staff or entertaining friends from out of town in Dehradun, (now in Uttarakhand); many of whom were people who belonged to royalty or influential circles. Her home “Sawant Villa”, named after my great grand father, was an open house with people constantly streaming in and out.
My grandmother was fondly called ‘Brownie’ by her family and friends. She was the wife of the late Maharaja Kumar Aman Singh of Bijawar (now in Madhya Pradesh) and the daughter of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala (Punjab) who was known as ‘the proud owner of the world famous “Patiala Necklace‘ manufactured by Cartier.
Brownie or as I called her, ‘Dadu‘, was brought up in the lap of great luxury but she understood and adapted to the simple life very well. A beautiful, strong, non-judgmental woman, she wouldn’t suffer fools and was known to never mince her words. The only thing that impressed her was a good education and believed that it was the only way one could change their lives for the better. She thus ensured that all her children and grandchildren would appreciate the value of literacy and education.
Dadu was a very social woman and loved going into the city to meet her friends. Everyone knew her in Dehradun. I remember her dragging me to meet her dear friend, Mrs. Vijaylaxmi Pandit and they would spend hours chatting away while she would keep tucking my hair away from my forehead and eyes. She was as comfortable in a Rolls Royce as she was in a local bus in Dehradun. The latter was how she travelled to visit me when I was studying at the Doon School. She insisted on teaching us how to walk barefoot on Bajri (pebbled) pathways and chew on a Datun (Neem twig commonly used to clean teeth), in retrospect I think it was to prepare us for the real world.
I also remember, a few of her interesting obsessions were collecting imported soaps and canvas shopping bags. Anyone who ever travelled abroad had to bring back bars of soaps, canvas bags and chocolates. I remember one soap in particular in her bathroom was shaped like a fish. It seems that her quirky fascination with soaps may have passed on to me.
After an accidental fall in the early 90s, my grandmother’s health began to fail and she passed away in her sleep, peacefully in 2005. This photograph of her is framed and hung in my dining room. While I never saw her dressed like this, the dignity and pride I see in it, is alive and inspiring.
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This Post Has 3 Comments
Shalini Sharma23 Apr 2020
A very nice way of doing the work.
Shalini Sharma20 Apr 2020
your article is very interesting. I loved it
Victoria Barlow31 Jan 2014
Dear Sawant Singhji,
What a great joy it was to read your wonderfully written essay! Ah, how gloriously beautiful she was! Your essay is full of things I’d always wanted to know about Rani, as my friends and I called her, when she was my landlady at Sawant Villa in the autumn and winter of 1980, into early Spring 1981. She was actually my dear friend, Florence’s landlady. Florence lives, nearby on Rajpur Road too with her family and had rented the apartment above Rani’s garage for a sort of meditation retreat place and I in turn rented a part of that apartment.
What a memorable character Rani was! She’s remained in my heart all these many years since then. She was delightfully ascerbic, frank in her opinions and there was something deeply courageous about her. She would never, I imagine, have called herself a feminist, but she had those qualities, being bravely and boldly at ease in the world, forthright, direct. And yes, so interesting that she would have been quite comfortable in a Rolls Royce as traveling by bus. I admired so much about her.
It was from her that I first heard a person use the term hot flash as she shared with 28 year old me about the inconveniences of being menopausal. Like you, I was asked to accompany her to Mrs. Vijaylaxmi Pandit’s for tea. On the walk there Raniji taught me a bit of Hindi in her playful way, “The word ‘for’ in Hindi is keliye, NOT kela, as in banana.” It makes me laugh to write that. She prepped me on being formally well mannered and by the time we arrived I felt very timid. Still, it was a privilege and exciting to be asked to come with her on that visit.
In New Delhi, I knew a schoolmate of hers, a close friend at that time, another rani, Meenakshi Devi of Alirajpur. It was she who told me that Rani’s affectionate nickname in school was Brownie.
I loved Rani’s garden and the property with its lichi tree lined driveway, all the flowers, her generous verandah. It was a lovely oasis and I felt fortunate to have known her.
Thank you for sharing your memories, that photograph, the information and your thoughts. Best wishes to you from NYC.