Remembering A Maharajah

Anindita Mazumder

As speeding buses, taxis and cars swerve round the southwest corner of the erstwhile Dalhousie Square, hurtling towards GPO, more often than not, passers-by miss this beautiful statue of Raj era. Overgrown foliage and battered tramcars often hide it from view but if you ever have a moment to spare, do stop by to admire the statue of Maharajah of Darbhanga, Lakshmishwar Singh.

In the sixties, most colonial relics were transported lock, stock and barrel to Barrackpore beyond the public eye, but this one survived, perhaps because it belonged to an Indian aristocrat. But then, we wonder why the statue of a mere zemindar of Bihar was installed at the very heart of imperial Calcutta –Dalhousie Square?

In the words of HE Cotton, the chronicler of Calcutta, Maharajah Lakshmishwar Singh Bahadur, GCIE, of Darbhanga “was in every sense the best type of the Indian nobleman and landlord. He was the leading zemindar in Behar, where he owned no less than 2,152 square miles with a net yearly rental of 30 lakhs, and was the recognized head of the orthodox of Hindoo Community.” Darbhanga was actually the largest and richest among all zemindari estates in the country.

The principality of Darbhanga owed its origin to Mahesh Thakurji, appointed by Akbar as the tax collector of Mithila or modern Bihar. Subsequently, the family consolidated itself at Darbhanga which became the largest zemindari in the country. It was the best managed estate when zemindari system got abolished in the country after independence. The family scions assumed the title of ‘Maharajah’. They were great patrons of education, arts, literature and music. Lakshmishwar Singh patronised both Maithili and Hindi languages. In addition, by 19th Century, Darbhanga was an important seat of Hindustani Classical music and their patronage to Dhrupad led to the creation of a separate Darbhanga Gharana.

Contrary to the popular notion that land owners and zemindars survived by appeasing the imperial masters, the Maharajah was the principal donor for the Indian National Congress during its initial days, quite apparent from the correspondence between him and its founder, AO Hume and its first president, WC Bonnerjee. When the British Government denied permission to Congress to hold itsannual meeting in 1892 in Allahabad, he bought a piece of land at Lowther Castle and handed it over to Congress.

A “progressive and liberal minded statesman” he was the President of British Indian and other Landowners’ Associations and took active part in debates on Bengal Tenancy Act, 1885. He was a member of the Supreme Legislative Council till his death. He sat in the Bengal Council and the Governor General’s Council.

The Maharajah was easily the most generous among philanthropists and he contributed £300,000 for relief work during the Bengal famine of 1873-1874, and after his death it was computed that during his reign “he spent £2,000,000,011 on charities, works of public utility, and charitable remissions of rent.”

In his praise Cotton said: “Few Asiatics have combined more successfully in themselves the apparently incompatible characteristics of East and West.”

Born in 1858, he became the ruler of Darbhanga at the age of two. He was the first Maharajah of Darbhanga to receive Western education when he and his brother were placed under the Court of Wards. After assuming charge of his estate, he set about its modernisation. He commanded esteem among all influential people because of his fearless nationalist outlook and zeal for developing his country and his region as well. He was only 43 when he died in 1898.

This statue in white marble stands out among those of other Indian nationalist leaders that dot BBD Bag or Maidan area. Again, unlike most other statues of the era which are found to be in standing posture or equestrian, this particular one has the Maharajah sitting upon his guddee or ornamental throne “with a scimitar in the right hand and a shield in the left, and wearing the ancestral head dress of his family and the robes and chain of a Knight Grand Commander of the Order of the Indian Empire.” Each detail, be it his beard, the engraved low throne or the fold ofhis ornamental dress – has been etched with care rendering it as a wonderful work of art of the era.

Its significance lies in the fact that the statue was the last work of eminent British sculptor, Edward Onslow Ford, who was credited for some beautiful works such as the colossal memorial statue of Queen Victoria in Manchester and the nude, recumbent statue of poet Shelley at University College, Oxford. In 1890, the Maharajah himself had commissioned Ford in 1890 to produce two full-length allegorical figures of ‘Dance’ and ‘Music’ to occupy niches in his ballroom.

The statue of Lakshmishwar Singh was unveiled by Sir Andrew Fraser, Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal, on March 25, 1904, in the presence of many illustrious personalities such as Sir Gooroodas Banerjee, Raja Peary Mohan Mukherjee and Prodyot Coomar Tagore.

The Maharajah was also anaccomplished player of the sitar. Passionate about music, he had invited Gauhar Jaan to make her debut at Darbhanga in 1887 when she was still unknown to the world of music. He bestowed great honour upon the singer by appointing her as the court musician of Darbhanga. It was appropriate that the statue of such a great connoisseur of art should also be equally aesthetically pleasing.

It is a pity that Calcutta was notable to preserve the beautiful house of Darbhanga Raj – an architectural marvel with exquisite domes and carriage gates which was demolished overnight. A group of 14 companies had bought the mansion on 42, Chowringhee Road for INR 11 crore but by the time the municipal authorities woke up, the domes were gone.

The statue of the Maharajah of Darbhanga is now the sole link between this principality and our city and we must do our bit to save this tenuous bond for the sake of the great philanthropist who came forward for every public work undertaken for the benefit of the citizens of the City of Joy.


Maharajah of Darbhanga
South-West corner of BBD Bag
Car Parking:
In the vicinity