‘On 29 March 1849, the ten-year-old Maharaja of Punjab, Duleep Singh, was ushered into the Shish Mahal, the magnificent mirrored throne room at the centre of the great fort of Lahore.
The boy’s father, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was long dead, and his mother, Rani Jindan, had been forcibly removed some time earlier, and incarcerated in a palace outside the city. Now Duleep Singh found himself surrounded by a group of grave-looking men, wearing red coats and plumed hats, who talked among themselves in an unfamiliar language.
In the terrors of the minutes that followed — what he later remembered as the ‘crimson day’ — the frightened but dignified child finally yielded to months of British pressure. Within minutes, the flag of the Sikh Khalsa was lowered and the British colours run up above the gatehouse of the fort.
The document signed by the ten-year-old maharaja, later known as the Treaty of Lahore, handed over to a private corporation, the East India Company, great swathes of the richest land in India… At the same time, Duleep Singh was induced to hand over to Queen Victoria the single most valuable object not just in Punjab, but arguably in the entire sub-continent: the celebrated Koh-i-Noor, or Mountain of Light.’
In their telling of the sweeping story of the ‘most infamous diamond in the world’ (published by Juggernaut Books in December 2016), William Dalrymple and Anita Anand recounted the moment that the Koh-i-Noor passed out of Indian hands into English ones. While nearly every royal owner of the diamond seems to have attracted more than their fair share of misfortune, ill luck, illness, and death, the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh — the last king of Punjab, and the Koh-i-Noor’s last Indian owner, seems particularly poignant.
Unlike some of the gem’s previous owners, Duleep Singh was neither maimed, nor tortured, nor even killed. But in his lifetime, he experienced a tremendous amount of loss.
The loss of his family, the loss of his throne (which he ascended at the age of five, after the previous claimants, including his half-brothers, died under mysterious circumstances), the loss of his kingdom and the loss of his famed possession the Koh-i-Noor (signed away as part of the Lahore Treaty), the loss of his home country and everything familiar — and all this, before he turned 15.
With his mother, the Rani Jindan, banished into exile, Duleep Singh was raised by his British guardian Dr Login. At the age of 15, he was sent to England, where he became a great favourite of Queen Victoria and later converted to Christianity.
He was a star at court, labelled ‘The Black Prince of Perthshire’ — although, more than a decade later, that narrative began to unravel. After many attempts, Duleep Singh was finally reunited with his mother, rediscovered his Sikh faith, started questioning how the British had taken away what was rightfully his, and demanded recompensation.
By the time he died — penniless and alone — in Paris, in 1893, Duleep Singh had gone from being touted as an Imperial success story to a rebellious thorn in the side of the British. His remains were interred in Britain, something he had reportedly expressed his opposition to, during his lifetime.
Such a tragic story lends itself to re-tellings, and Maharaja Duleep Singh’s life has inspired many. (Apart from the Koh-i-Noor book), Anita Anand chronicled his daughter, the Princess Sophia’s journey; The Singh Twins (Amrit and Rabindra) painted a portrait of the ‘Black Prince’ that attempted to redress some of the Imperial ‘co-opting’ of his narrative; a biopic — Maharaja Duleep Singh: A Monument Of Injustice — was made in 2007.
And now, a new film — written and directed by Kavi Raz, and produced by Brillstein Entertainment — is also offering a fresh look at Duleep Singh’s life, as also his legacy.
Titled The Black Prince, Raz’s film traces how the Maharaja was torn between two cultures; comprehensively detailing his early life, his struggle to reconnect with his past and faith, and also, in later years, his valiant fight to free his people and raise the voice of India’s Independence.
Raz answered a few questions for Firstpost, about The Black Prince:
What about the story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, as writer and filmmaker, did you find most compelling?
The story of Maharajah Duleep Singh is relevant today as it was 150 years ago. At its core, this is the story of a man trying to find himself, reconnect with his true identity and faith. As the world is becoming more and more divisive so are factions within our society looking for their own identity.
The Sikh nation is good example of that.
They want to remain true to who they are and not be overwhelmed by larger factors surrounding their existence. Maharajah Duleep Singh’s story is also a reminder of Kingdom of Punjab, Khalsa Raj. It was glorious period in the history of Punjab. For me as a filmmaker, therefore, it was important to tell the story.
17 Sep 2021
18 Sep 2021