Hanwant Singh (1923-1952) was the last absolute ruler of Jodhpur before Indian Independence deprived the Maharajas of their power. He was born the year his father Umaid Singh reached his majority and ruled alone. Umaid Singh was an ADC to the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and retained strong links with the British royal family and the Raj throughout his reign. The Maharaja sent his eldest son to Mayo College, the Eton of the East, founded in 1870 by the British and the preferred seat of learning for the Rajput ruling clans. When asked by a rival Prince being sent up to Eton what he would take with him to Mayo, Singh replied ‘a couple of cars, a few horses, some guns and, of course my servants’. He also travelled with his own barber and tailor.
Despite his height (well over six feet) and his weight, Singh (who was nicknamed ‘Big Boy’) was a proficient polo player as well as a keen amateur magician and had a reputation as an eccentric. More dangerous for the Rathore clan was his burgeoning antagonism towards the British and the Raj that displeased his father who was a highly decorated military man. In 1943 Big Boy was betrothed to Gujerat princess Krishna Kumari of Dhrangadhra. He was 20 and his bride was 16. The groom’s party travelled to Dhrangadhra in a fleet of white Rolls Royce to bring the shy princess back to Jodhpur. As Rajmata she would later serve as regent for their only son the present Maharaja of Jodhpur.
The world was at war in 1943 and Marwar was recovering from a terrible famine. The Maharaja-in-waiting attended the Council of Ministers but by night was said to have ridden into the walled city and distributed anti-British posters risking the wrath of his father. These were the twilight years of the British Raj and Hanwant Singh was aware that the old order would not survive his father who died suddenly in 1947. The new Maharaja had a reputation as a young, rash and headstrong man given to emotional outbursts. The future of Jodhpur – a dynasty that could trace its ancestry back to the 8th century – rested entirely with him.
The Maharaja was crowned on June the 21st. By August 15th Viscount Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, announced the partitioning of British India into India and Pakistan. The maharajas retained their palaces, land, wealth and the Privy Purse but lost political power.
Founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah lobbied the new Maharaja with a view to annexing Jodhpur. It was only the intervention of his mother the Rajmata, Mountbatten and the founding father of the Indian Republic Vallabhabhai Patel that persuaded the Maharaja to support a united India. For the rest of his brief life the Maharaja would be the most progressive member of his class in adapting to the new political climate. As he said, ‘privileges are only a paltry make believe if not a fool’s paradise. Shorn of old feudal and autocratic character, a prince in free India should now rise to the level of the Common Man’. This he did.
In the late 1940s, the Maharaja met professional singer/actress Zubeidaa who sang at his sister’s wedding. He fell instantly in love and pursued her to Bombay finally bringing the pert, pretty woman back to Jodhpur as his mistress. The Rani, his family and the royal court rejected the Muslim divorcee. They had tolerated a second marriage to English woman Sandra McBryde who the Maharaja divorced after a tempestuous and brief union. Leaving his family in the new palace at Ummed Bhavan, he moved back to the royal fort Mehrangarth with Zubeidaa who was to become his third wife.
In 1951 the Maharaja decided to stand in the first Indian general election. Nehru had threatened to withdraw the Privy Purse if any of the maharajas stood for election. The Maharaja voluntarily gave up the government-funded purse and took to the skies in his Beechcraft Bonanza six-seater light aircraft often accompanied by Zubeidaa Begum to canvas as an independent candidate. He was passionate about serving his people and would exist on four hours’ sleep as he tirelessly canvassed. It was also alleged he was on a daily dose of 15 Dexadrine tablets (uppers) to sustain his energy levels. On January 26th 1952, the Maharaja and Zubeidaa were flying dangerously low over a dry riverbed when the plane hit power cables and crashed killing both passengers instantly. Tragically, the Maharaja’s independent party had won a landslide taking 31 of 35 seats. He was 28-years old.
The Maharaja visited Henry Poole & Co in 1949. He ordered a ‘blue elastic DB (double-breasted) dining jacket and trousers, a blue and white stripe cashmere DB jacket and trousers, a grey and red stripe cashmere DB jacket and trousers and a fancy check tweed SB (single-breasted) jacket. As a strange footnote to the late Maharaja’s story, the wreckage of his Beachcroft Bonanza plane was found under a pile of junk in Jodhpur’s high security prison. A film called Zubeidaa became a Bollywood classic in 2001 and was written by Zubeidaa’s son Khalid Mohamed.