Throughout history, royal families have been plagued by scandals and controversies revolving around love and relationships. Even when it comes to falling in love, not all blue-blooded aristocrats have followed the royal rule book.
One such love story, in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, almost tore apart the royal family and divided the then princely state, a hundred years ago. But it also proved that passion can survive the most challenging situations. The story had the makings of a true potboiler – opposition, rebellion, separation, tears and a happy reunion.
And this spicy love story was discovered recently by descendants of the erstwhile royal family in a trunk full of letters, diaries and biographies of the Bhanj dynasty’s most famous ruler, Maharaja Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo, whose 150th birth anniversary was on 17th December last year. Among his possessions were love letters to a Bengali woman named Sucharu Devi.
“My great-grandfather’s father, Maharaja Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo, known as one of the makers of modern Odisha, was heralded as a philosopher-king. His second marriage attracted a lot of opposition,” says Akshita Bhanj Deo, daughter of Praveen Chandra Bhanj Deo, the 47th ruler of the Bhanj dynasty.
It was a chance meeting that sowed the seeds of a serendipitous love story. In 1889, three years before Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo was crowned King of Mayurbhanj, he met Sucharu at an event in Darjeeling. He was 18 and she 15. She was the daughter of the noted Brahmo Samaj leader Keshab Chandra Sen, a philosopher and social reformer of 19th century Bengal.
When Sri Ram Chandra Deo told his family that he wanted to marry Sucharu, they were aghast. Being a Brahmo was different from being a Hindu, so it would have been an inter-religious marriage, so to speak for someone who was not even royalty. The Maharaja’s family considered it a terribly impulsive decision. Despite their opposition, he began to court Sucharu.
Then he did an about-turn. The young prince, not one to go against his family’s wishes, wrote an apology letter to Sucharu, and, toeing the family line, married the Hindu Rajput princess of Porahat (now in Bihar) and the daughter of his father’s best friend, in 1896. His wife, Lakshmi Devi, gave birth to two sons and a daughter. Tragically, she died of smallpox along with her youngest daughter.
Upset by the turn of events and to commemorate her memory, Sri Ram Chandra Deo set up the Lakshmi Kumari Dharmasala and the Sripada Manjari Cancer Ashram (named after his deceased daughter) in Baripada, Odisha. These were only two of the numerous charitable acts on the part of the benevolent Maharaja, who was closely involved with local governance. He also made immense contributions to agriculture and education, patronised the Chhou dance of Mayurbhanj, and worked for the development of the Odia language and literature. His insatiable appetite for knowledge led him to reorganise the virtually defunct State Press, which had been established by his late father.
About 14 years after he first met Sucharu, the Maharaja ran into her once again at a party in Calcutta (now, Kolkata). Realising that she had never got married because she was still in love with him, he proposed marriage to her. His family was infuriated and said that if he married her, the palace would be out of bounds to her. Nevertheless, the couple got married in Calcutta in 1904, travelled the world together, built schools, hospitals and worked with the Tatas to build the first iron ore and steel mine in Mayurbhanj.
Incidentally, the marriage of Sucharu’s sister Suniti Devi to the Maharaja of Cooch Behar in Bengal in 1878, had also created controversy for their father, Keshab Chandra Sen. Suniti Devi was a few months short of 14, the legal age for marriage as defined by the Brahmo Marriage Act of 1872, which Sen had strived hard to make into a law. The marriage led to a sharp drop in the membership of the Brahmo Samaj in India, which was created by Sen after he formally broke away from the original Brahmo Samaj in 1866.
It also fractured Sen’s reputation among his closest reformist allies in Britain, and caused him public as well as personal distress. Left with fewer followers, he founded a new society named Naba Bidhan (New Dispensation), which preached a mix of Hindu philosophy and Christian theology.
Sucharu and the Maharaja had a son and two daughters. Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo had never dared to take her to the Mayurbhanj palace and, instead, built the Rajabagh Palace for her in Calcutta’s Mayurbhanj Road. Simultaneously, he refurbished the Belgadia Palace in Mayurbhanj — a former guest house for royal dignitaries — for Sucharu to stay in, in case she ever visited the princely state, as she was barred from entering the main Mayurbhanj palace.
“Sucharu visited Mayurbhanj only a handful of times. She visited Belgadia Palace for the first time after marriage when it was refurbished for her. She also visited it a few more times after the birth of her kids and during events such as the visit of famous personalities including Dr Annie Besant and Hemendranath Majumdar,” says Akshita.
Sucharu’s artistic sensibilities clearly showed in the décor of the Belgadia Palace, and many parts of the property were stamped with her tastes. Akshita and her sister Mrinalika Bhanj Deo, opened a portion of the palace in 2019 and rent it as a boutique homestay.
“The interiors of Belgadia Palace were done up in Neo-Classical style; and many of the furniture pieces and upholstery are reminiscent of late 1800s Bengal and France. These were commissioned by Sucharu herself. Her artistic sensibilities are also visible in the urns, jugs, Wedgwood porcelain accessories, pottery and statues, which are typical of Neo-Classical furniture.
“She brought in the aesthetics of the East through the floor-to-ceiling Pattachitra paintings, Dokra-embossed woodwork and silverware, and black stone carved statues. The property in essence was curated and crafted by her upbringing in aristocratic Calcutta with Western sensibilities. Sucharu was instrumental in planting flowering trees and fruit orchards around the property and initiating the idea of farm-to-table when palaces at the time mostly had lawns for aesthetic reasons,” adds Mrinalika.
But Sucharu and the Maharaja’s happiness was short-lived. Just eight years into their marriage, while on a hunting trip with the British representatives and his brother-in-law, Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo was mysteriously shot. He succumbed to his injuries in 1912, at the age of 41. Rumours were spread that the shot had been fired by Sucharu’s brother so that he could be framed, supposedly to alienate the Sen family from Mayurbhanj state. The Maharaja was rushed to Calcutta for better treatment. However, signs of septicaemia began to show and he died on February 22, 1912. Sucharu died five decades later, in 1961, in Calcutta.
When guests at Belgadia are taken through the history of the magnificent property, the Sriram-Sucharu love story is an integral part of the tour. A part of her room has been converted into the ‘Bengal Renaissance suite’ to pay homage to her, reveals Mrinalika, adding, “Guests are allowed to stay in the room. It even has the antique claw-foot bathtub, vintage vinyls and fans, paintings, dresser and a full-length mirror which belonged to Sucharu.”
Sucharu’s influence was not restricted to the walls of Belgadia Palace. She was the president of the Bengal Women’s Education League in 1931 and also president of the All Bengal Women’s Union. In Calcutta, she was a firm advocate for gender equality. She played a huge role in shaping the course of the princely state of Mayurbhanj, despite the opposition that she faced. She, along with the Maharaja, modelled Mayurbhanj on the lines of a smart city. They developed schools in the princely state, improved the water supply network, worked on health care, patronised artists and took care of marginalised communities such as the adivasis or indigenous tribal communities.
Sucharu also had a big influence on the way royals dressed in those times. Mrinalika says, “She popularised the East Bengal / Parsi style of wearing a sari with a Victorian blouse and jewellery such as brooches and chokers and headband tiaras. This style came to be known as ‘Brahmika sari’ because it was adopted by Brahmo Samaj women after Sucharu made an appearance in it at an event in Delhi in 1911. She had pinned the sari to the left shoulder with a brooch and wore it with a lace-high collar blouse and kitten-heel shoes. Her godfather, Rabindranath Tagore, once called her the ‘epitome of the ideal Indian woman’, which is a great way to remember her.”
There is, however, no portrait of Sucharu on display at the Belgadia Palace. “We recently found one and it is in the process of being framed. It will hang beside the portrait of her husband on display in the private tea room in the Belgadia Palace. It is the only portrait of Sucharu in the home, and also the only one with her children and stepchildren in one frame,” says Akshita.
Sucharu and Sriram’s son, Dhrubendra Bhanj Deo, was A Royal Air Force fighter pilot who was killed in an offensive mission during World War II. He signed up for the volunteer reserve in his late 20s to conduct rescue missions to fly women and children in Iraq and Syria out of hostile territory to Allied powers’ safe zones. It was Sucharu’s decision to urge him to sign up and volunteer for these missions – which meant wasting his Cambridge education – to fight for an independent India and resettle refugees with whom he had no connection.
While there is a mention of Maharaja Sri Ram Chandra Bhanj Deo in the history books, the royal family has now approached the Odisha and West Bengal governments to recognise Sucharu’s contributions as well. They have requested descendants of the Sen family to visit Mayurbhanj and co-host a cultural programme honouring the link between the two states. They have also invited the Brahmo community to renovate Sucharu’s graveyard in Calcutta and install a plaque at two places where she spent a considerable part of her life — the Rajabagh and Shillong summer palaces, which now house the Jnan Chandra Ghosh Polytechnic and IIM-Shillong, respectively.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aveek Bhowmik is an independent journalist with over 18 years of experience in the field. He is an avid traveller and a passionate storyteller who likes to write about heritage, lost traditions, local communities, sports and food.