How to marry a maharaja

It was a story that intrigued and scandalised Spain a century ago: the exotic dancer who caught the eye of a visiting prince and went to live in India as his wife. But plans to tell her story on the big screen have outraged the mahajara's descendants, who fear his reputation will be tarnished

Elizabeth Nash
Monday 05 November 2007 01:00 GMT

Just over a century ago, Anita Delgado, a beautiful but barely literate Spanish teenager, danced a brief flamenco in a Madrid nightclub, caught the eye of a visiting Indian prince, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, and married him. The modest café-owner's daughter left her homeland to live for 18 years in opulent luxury in the Himalayan foothills with Sir Jagatjit Singh. She was his fifth and favourite wife and he showered with attention and jewels personally designed for her by Cartier.

The rags-to-riches story intrigued and scandalised Spanish society for decades, to the point that it became said of any young woman seeking social advancement that she "wanted to marry a maharaja". The royal couple had a son, but eventually separated amid allegations of her infidelity. Delgado returned to Europe with a generous pension, and died in Madrid in 1962, after which her fairy-tale life story was gradually forgotten.

But the spectacular biography of the woman who became known as the "Spanish Maharani" has bounced back centre stage after the recent publication of a sizzling fictional biography by Javier Moro which has become a best-seller in Spain and India, and has been translated into several languages.

Screen rights to the book were snapped up by the Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, who, inspired by the exotic East-West romance, planned a big budget biopic to be filmed in India in co-operation with Bollywood superstars, which she would produce and direct through her recently established production company. She cast herself in the starring role as the sultry dancer turned princess.

But the project ran into trouble, blocked by descendants of the maharaja who, although long stripped of their privileges under the Raj, still enjoy social prestige in India. The maharaja's great-grandson, Tika Shatrujit Singh, heir to the Kapurthala royal family, has challenged the actress's ambitions and threatens legal action to defend the name of his ancestor, who died in 1949, which he claims is sullied by a sensationalist fictional account of his marriage with the low-born Spanish girl.

Public interest was further stirred when Christie's announced this month that it would auction the late maharani's jewels in London, an event which the auction house itself hailed as evoking a fairy-tale love story "that could have been written by the finest romantic novelist, but was in fact true". The highlight among the eight pieces of jewellery, worth an estimated £200,000, is an art deco emerald, diamond and rock crystal necklace, a gift from the maharaja to his bride on her 19th birthday. The necklace had been an adornment for his favourite elephant. Christie's international director of Asian art, Amin Jaffer, said: "These jewels are a symbol of cross-cultural love and taste, bringing together Indian princely patronage with the finest European craftsmanship and design."

The improbable romance that spanned class and culture began in Madrid in 1906 during preparations for the wedding between Spain's King Alfonso XIII and Princess Victoria Eugenia of Battenburg. Anita Delgado's family had moved from Malaga some weeks before, so her father could look for work, and Anita, 16, and her sister Victoria started a dance act in a Madrid nightclub, calling themselves Las Camelias.

Among the English contingent of guests to the sumptuous royal wedding was the Maharaja of Kapurthala, then aged 34, who formed part of the retinue of the Prince of Wales. He arrived in a glittering coach, wearing a turquoise blue turban adorned with pearls and precious stones, his chest studded with decorations, and a diamond-encrusted dagger in his belt.

He asked to visit evening entertainment, was taken to see the Delgado sisters, and was smitten by Anita's black hair and huge sleepy eyes. Sir Jagajdit showered the girl with gifts and flowers, which were rebuffed by her fiercely protective family. He took her to dine in Madrid's smartest restaurant, where the unworldly teenager drank the hot water in the fingerbowl.

After the royal wedding ceremony, he invited the Delgado family to his hotel suite, but celebrations turned to fear and panic when an anarchist threw a bomb at the royal cortège, killing 23 people and wounding scores. Guests swiftly fled Madrid, but Sir Jagadjit continued his courtship from Paris. He offered Anita a huge sum of money – enough to set up her family for years – and she agreed to marry him. "I went to Paris," she said later. "I was met by his secretary, a dozen slaves and half a dozen automobiles. They took me to a luxurious palace. A letter awaited me: the prince would not appear until I had learnt French, because he didn't want to express his feelings through another person."

It was an astonishing life change for a young Spanish woman of humble origins for whom education, travel and social advancement were virtually unattainable.She was taught to ride, play the piano and dance; she learnt French and English and how to behave at formal banquets. The wedding was set for January 1908. The prince went ahead to supervise arrangements, and Anita embarked in Marseilles for Bombay.

In Kapurthala, she married according to Sikh rites and took the name Prem Kaur. She made something of a splash in Indian high society, but was devastated to learn on her arrival that she was the maharaja's fifth wife. She describes how four maids, each with a different function, formed her "walking bathroom". Her liberal-minded, Westernised husband allowed her considerable freedom of action, allowing her to live in her own quarters, outside the harem, but the British imperial authorities never recognised her as queen.

They had a son, Ajit Singh, and travelled together for years through India and Europe, until in 1924, on a visit to London where they stayed at the Savoy, she is said to have had an affair with her stepson, who was about her age. She was separated from the prince, and divorced a year later. Delgado retained her Indo-Punjabi nationality, a life pension, her title as maharani, and all the gifts and jewels she had received during 18 years of marriage. In exchange, she was obliged to leave India and never remarry.

She returned to Europe, and lived in Malaga, Biarritz, Deauville and Paris, enjoying the company of her secretary, Gines Rodriguez de Segura, in a relationship she kept secret, fearing the pension that supported them both in luxury would be stopped, until her death in Madrid in 1962. Many of her possessions, including millions of pounds worth of jewels, were sent from India in a separate ship that sank in the Mediterranean. The maharaja's heirs are still trying to recover the treasure.

Her son, Ajit, died in 1982 after which Delgado was largely forgotten until the Spanish writer Javier Moro recently published a novel based on her life, Pasion India, translated into English and published in India as Indian Passion. The tale, illustrated with family photos, was widely covered in the Spanish press, where Penelope Cruz's mother spotted it and pointed it out to her daughter as a tailor-made role. The actress, whose father was a suburban car salesman, who became an Oscar-nominated Hollywood goddess, "fell in love with the story" and bought the film rights to Moro's book. Cruz set up her own production company last year and told journalists at the Cannes Film Festival of her ambitions to turn Passion India into her first big biopic as producer and director, to be shot in India, France and Spain. She would play the starring role as dancer-turned-princess, and the Bollywood heart-throb Shahrukh Khan was widely tipped in the Indian press as candidate to play the maharaja. Cruz announced plans to visit India to scout locations in Punjab and cast Indian actors.

But everything went on hold when the actress-producer-director found herself on a collision course with the maharaja's family. The book was "a scandalous portrayal that has been spiced up", the maharaja's great-grandson, Shatrujit Singh, said. "This is not a historical account but a creation of the imagination of a mentally sick author, who humiliated the memory of my great-grandfather." The heir to Kapurthala refuses to co-operate with Cruz and threatens legal action to defend his family's name.

"I've got nothing against Penelope Cruz, who has obviously been misinformed by Moro," Shatrujit Singh said. "We'd be delighted if she starred in a film about the real life of Princess Anita, but not this rubbish." Moro's book slurred not only the former rulers of Kapurthala, but other former maharajas too, Mr Singh said. "Moro is perfectly entitled to write a book of fiction, but not to use real people, with real names, illustrated with real photos, then say it's only fiction. That kind of behaviour is unacceptable in India."

Then Delgado's great-nephew, Manuel Lucas Sanchis, grandson of Anita's niece, Victoria Winans Delgado, wrote an open letter to Cruz saying: "The book contains a great number of errors, frivolities and mediocrities intended only to provide a more saleable image to the protagonist and the world she lived in. Don't base your script on this book, which has nothing to do with reality."

But there may be a way out. Another Spanish author, Elisa Vazquez de Gey, published an earlier, less sensational, biography of Anita Delgado. This was authorised by Victoria Winans Delgado, Mr Sanchis's grandmother, who gave the author family photographs and documents, including Delgado's diary, published in 1915. Mr Sanchis concludes his letter by recommending Gey's work as a more reliable source for a filmscript.

And the heir to Kapurthala, an adviser for luxury brands in India, may yet relent.

"My great grandfather loved Spain and visited the country 20 or 30 times," he said. "In reality, this is an opportunity to tell the love story between the unique cultures of India and Spain, based not on tittle-tattle, but on good manners and sophistication.

"I am prepared to meet [Penelope Cruz] and explain the family's feelings and offer her historical guidance. If she co-operates, I may even open the doors to my palace."

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