E. M. Forster, the Rajah and his tutor

Most people who know E.M.Forster’s Passage to India (1924) also know that the background research for the novel was undertaken while the author worked as private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, senior, who ruled a tiny State in north central India. In 1953, many years after the novel appeared, and sixteen years after the Maharajah had died, Forster published as The Hill of Devi  recollections of his time in  what he called ‘ the oddest corner of the world outside Alice in Wonderland’.

Forster had first met the young ruler, who bore the rather cumbersome cognomen of  Sir Tukoji Rao III, in 1912 , while he was the guest of the high-flying administrator  Malcolm Darling, who had himself arrived in India in 1904.  ‘His Highness’, or H.H., as the Rajah styled himself, was then just in his early twenties, having succeeded his father in 1900 at the tender age of twelve. In 1906 Darling was appointed his tutor and mentor, and in October 31st, 1907 the two men, together with the usual retinue, including possibly the Rajah’s beloved brother, embarked on what might today be called a ‘ fact -finding ’ tour of ’ All-India’ and Burma , which is briefly mentioned by Forster in his book. Various members of the party were responsible for taking snaps of the sights along the way. The Rajah himself can be seen in many of the photos, and Darling features in at least one. The camera used seems to have been a Kodak, which had become popular early in the 1890s—and it is this photographic record, mounted in a Kodak album, with brief identifying captions by the Rajah, that has recently come to light in a provincial auction house in the UK.

E.M. Forster (seated, left)

Interestingly, another album, this time recording a brief period in the Indian career of Darling, including a visit from his mother, was sold in the same lot. Both albums shed light on the lives of the young Rajah and his mentor in the years 1906 – 08-- a golden era of the British Raj before the radical teachings of Ghandi and his supporters had made an impact on the socio-political life of the subcontinent.

The itinerary of the four month tour is uncertain, mainly because the pages of the album are detached. It is probable that most of the travel on land was done by train, although in the opening snap the Rajah is shown beaming into the camera while leaning on what appears to be a luggage wagon.  It could also be possible that at one stage the party ran out of film, which may explain why only a limited number of sights were recorded. What we do know is that the Rajah was sufficiently impressed by the sights of Burma for him to devote over half of the album to various places visited along the Irrawaddy river, especially Mandalay. The Rajah seems to have been fascinated by the temples they encountered along the route, by the Burmese people at work and play, particularly their ceremonies of ablution, the street markets, ferrymen and fishermen. The final snaps are of Trivandrum in the far south of India, and one of the last shots is of Ceylon, to the south east of here. According to one caption, the party arrived at Indore, not far from Dewas, on Feb 3rd 1908, and on their safe return home the State presented an address to both Malcolm and the Rajah, and the boys of the Victoria High School burst into song:

Let us clap and let us sing
Let us form a merry ring
God has safe our Master brought
Home with precious lessons fraught

Forster, p 44.

The two had returned just in time for the young Rajah to prepare for his wedding, which took place at Kolhapur in March. This event was duly recorded in a letter by Malcolm, extracts from which Forster includes in The Hill of Devi.

In 1908, presumably after the tour, and after he had been with him for a year, Malcolm was obliged to submit a brief report of his young charge, who had now been granted full powers by the government.  This pen portrait speaks of the Rajah’s character, so closely observed for those four months.

‘If he is treated well in the minor matters of life, he will give much in return…he is generous, enthusiastic, touchy; ambitious to do something for his fellow Marathas and in this he should be encouraged, for despite local patriotism he remains loyal to the British, and appreciates what they have done.’

The report ends by putting on record Malcolm’s sense of ‘the high privilege it has been to be so intimately connected with one whose friendship was so worth winning’.

The Rajah seems to have charmed everyone he met. When Forster was first introduced to him at a Christmas banquet in 1912 he was immediately won over. The same playful and high spirited youth who comes across so vividly in the photograph album seemed unchanged, despite his marriage and the further responsibilities of office. Nine years later, Forster, now a respected novelist and essayist, was appointed the Rajah’s private secretary at three hundred rupees per month. Three years later A Passage to India appeared. The Hill of Devi is essentially a record of the writer’s deep friendship with the Rajah, which began with his employment and ended with the ruler’s early death in exile in Pondicherry at the age of 49. [RMH]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *