Maharaja Sayaji Rao III of Baroda ‘Vanity Fair’, 3 January 1901

COVID Creative Events / Jun 15, 2021

Maharaja Sayaji Rao III (1863-1939)

By Uttara Sukanya Joshi

Maharaja Sayaji Rao III, ruler of the princely state of Baroda, was featured in London’s ‘Vanity Fair’ on 3 January 1901. His portrait is not a caricature.

The Maharaja seems influenced by western style clothes since the 1880s. He was also extremely progressive in his outlook. He also took numerous steps to modernise his kingdom and promote the wellbeing of his subjects. He travelled to Britain for the first time in 1887. In later years, Sayaji Rao, his accomplished wife Maharani Chimnabai II and their children are known to have visited the country quite regularly. It is evident from, (for instance the picture below), that his dress had many clearly traditional Indian features as well as a mixture of Indian with European elements.

Sayaji Rao III’s portrait in his investiture dress by Raja Ravi Varma, 1881

Sayaji Rao III had a rare collection of priceless jewels for which he was widely known, but was not always eager or in the habit of flaunting in public.

Despite the above facts, the hold of ‘Orientalism’ on the western psyche seems to exercised a powerful impact during the Victorian and early Edwardian era. It is perhaps this tendency that explains why the ‘Vanity Fair’ artist, Mary Catherine Rees (née Dormer) (‘MR’ and ‘Bint’) who used to sign herself as ‘MR’ written in a stylish manner, seems to have chosen to depict Sayaji Rao III as a typical Indian potentate in traditional Indian clothes.

She has shown him to be possessed with a swarthy skin, bushy dark eyebrows and a prominent dark moustache with pointed twirled up edges. To further emphasise the “othering” of his persona as an oriental ruler, Mary has also depicted him as a somewhat vainglorious Indian royal of the British Raj. He is seen flashing expensive jewels. He is not merely an Indian looking man in Indian clothes, but also stands flashing numerous pieces of expensive jewellery from various parts of his body. He is top heavy!

He appears clad in a white silken angarkha that is streaked with strips of gold and is weighed down or edged with a ribbon of gold or what is called gota. The word angarkha is a derivative from the Sanskrit words Anga rakshak (protector of the body) or Angaraksha (protection of the body). In Sayaji Rao III’s ‘Vanity Fair’ portrait, the sleeves of his angarkha are edged with a gold ribbon. His lower garment is a smart pair of gilt-free pyjamas. These pyjamas look like narrow trousers and are made of a luminous white material. His feet are comfortably tucked away in a pair of shiny black leather slip-in leather shoes.

In his right hand, is a polished and distinctive wooden staff with a rounded shiny metallic top and a tapering and sharp end that he holds in one hand as he rests it daintily on the floor beside one of his feet. He flaunts a big ring on one finger of this hand. The other is kept invisible as it is kept safely out of sight behind his back. Could this have been a deliberate act to make viewers wonder what gems might lie hidden behind his back on each of the fingers and even the thumb of this hidden hand?

On his head, Mary has placed a typical Maratha pheta or turban. This was a sign of royalty. Moreover, it was also in keeping with Indian social norms of those days for men never to appear in public with their head uncovered. The wide variety of Indian headgear worn by Indian men all over the country, also goes to show how important and widespread covering the head was considered throughout the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent.

The artist was also careful to decorate Sayaji Rao with some of his famous jewels. Consequently, round his neck she has placed the famous Baroda diamond necklace. Another cluster of ornate jewellery that looks like massive diamonds, can be seen hanging, dangling and shining on his chest!

The spot on which the Maharaja is standing, is not recognisable as a specific city or town though it is presumably somewhere in India. It looks some kind of semi wilderness. In the background in the space behind the Maharaja, there are a few palm trees. Further afield is a hazy outline of what seem to be some buildings with a domes and towers.

The biographical information on Maharaja Sayaji Rao III provided in ‘Vanity Fair’ is accurate though very brief. It is, therefore, far from complete. It generally describes the Maharaja in a positive manner. It mentions his education, his practical wisdom, his moderation, his wealth and his importance and position among the foremost ruling Indian princes. To compliment the British Colonial administration for having successfully supervised Sayaji’s education during his minority, the ‘Vanity Fair’ also appreciatively acknowledges that: “He speaks English like an Englishman” and “his domestic standard is that of a Western Potentate.” There is, however, a powerful sting at the tail. Right at the end, the writer reveals his “Orientalist” bias towards the

“Other”, a characteristic often prevalent among English commentators of those days. This is evident from the following highly uncomplimentary and clearly derogatory remarks: “He is a very absentee Prince and a very unpunctual man. Yet there is but one Gaekwar; which word means “The Cow-Keeper.”

Uttara Sukanya Joshi

Uttara is a Civil servant and works for the Office for National Statistics in London. She has an artistic temperament. She enjoys sketching and contributed some portraits of celebrities in past SACF exhibitions held at London’s Nehru Centre. She is also a trained Indian classical dancer (in Kathak) and in the north Indian style of singing.

She has a BSc in Psychology from Royal Holloway College and a Masters in English Literature from Brunel University.

Uttara has a flair for creative writing and loves travelling and supporting good causes. She has an interest in World History and is an avid reader. She has enjoyed being part of SACF’s current Heritage Project on the ‘Vanity Fair’ magazine.

Uttara Sukanya Joshi

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