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MY MONA LISA

Portrait of Juhar Kumari, mother of Juddha
For five hundred years after the completion of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece debate raged in art history circles on just who might the lady with the enigmatic smile be. Was she a historical figure or just a figment of da Vinci's imagination? Only in 2005 did experts at the University of Heidelberg ascertain that it was the painting of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy businessman in Florence. Paeans galore have been written about her smile but the song by Nat King Cole best describes the enigma:

Mona lisa, mona lisa, men have named you
You’re so like the lady with the mystic smile
Is it only ’cause you’re lonely they have blamed you?
For that mona lisa strangeness in your smile?

Do you smile to tempt a lover, mona lisa?
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep
They just lie there and they die there
Are you warm, are you real, mona lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?

In our own family there is a mystery I am yearning to solve. The large portrait of the lady in a black Victorian dress has been hanging in our house since the time I was tall enough to look up at the high ceiling of my father's drawing room. The portrait is that of the mother of Maharajah Juddha Shumsher J. B. Rana, my grandfather and prime minister of Nepal, 1933 - 1946 A.D. She was the family matriarch. But who was she before she married Commander-in-chief General Dhir Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana in 1873 A.D. and where did she actually come from?

I remember stories of how Dhir, during one of his many campaigns in India, had met and got attracted to my great grandmother, Juhar Kumari Devi. Dhir was already a family man back home with at least 2 married wives and junior wives. His children were already grown up. But he had decided nevertheless to bring his lady back home. He was also afraid that this might not sit well with his elder brother Maharajah Jung Bahadur Rana, prime minister of Nepal. How would the old tyrant react?

Juhar Kumari mother of Maharajah Juddha
Family tradition says that Juhar Kumari was from the noble house of the state of Kangra located in what is today the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Kangra was once a part of Nepal having been conquered by the expanding Gorkha armies under General Amar Singh Thapa during the late 18th century from the tutelage of Ranjit Singh, the lion of Punjab. Along with the armies went Nepalese ethnic population from the western hills of Nepal to settle there. The 'Nepalization' of this area would have been complete had it not been for the encroachment of the East India Company. A clash was inevitable, which finally led to the Anglo-Nepal War of 1814-1816 A.D. The treaty signed at Sugauly relinquished Nepalese control over vast territories of land in the west and east of Nepal, including Kangra.

General Dhir had brought Juhar Kumari back to Nepal and wed her and a son Juddha was born 2 years later in 1875 A.D. in Narayanhiti Durbar in Kathmandu. His brother Jung Bahadur had accepted his new wife in the family in deference to Dhir's valour in the campaigns. General Dhir at his death bed gathered his senior sons and made them promise to list Juddha in the Roll of Succession to the hereditary title of Maharajah and prime minister of Nepal. After the death of his father Dhir in 1884A.D. the young Juddha was brought up by his eldest brother Bir Shumsher and, after the coup d'etat of 1885 A.D. having assumed the prime ministership, Bir had indeed fulfilled the promise and given due recognition to Juddha.

Today, besides these anecdotal stories, nothing more exists for us to trace Juhar Kumari's lineage back neither to Kangra nor to its nobility. I have even read articles on her saying that she was a Muslim girl from Oudh, perhaps from the noble houses there, vanquished by the Nepalese armies during the Indian Mutiny of 1857 A.D. In the puritanical 19th Century India it is as unlikely that devout Hindus of the Kshetriya caste would take a Muslim bride as a Muslim noble family would give their daughter in marriage to a Hindu.

Coming back to the portrait, just who is our da Vinci? Mrs. Sangeeta Thapa the socialite and art curator called me a few years back to request that the portrait be displayed at the exhibition of the portrait artist Late Tej Bahadur Chitrakar. Indeed her sharp eyes had seen that the oil on canvas was painted by the first Nepalese artist to train in the art of European style of portrait painting. Maharajah Chandra Shumsher had personally selected Chitrakar and had him sent for a formal training in Calcutta for seven years, from 1921 to 1928 A.D. Even the dead artist's family did not know that this particular portrait so beautifully painted by Chitrakar existed - it was a great joy for me to have it displayed at NAFA gallery.

Perhaps someday a Rana history buff will unravel the mystery of her lineage. Whosoever Juhar Kumari might have been before her marriage to General Dhir Shumsher, she is the mother of Maharaja Juddha Shumsher J. B. Rana, prime minister of Nepal, 1933 - 1946 A.D., and the enigmatic portrait still finds its prideful place in the collection at my house, as my priceless Mona Lisa.

Maharajah Juddha with mother Juhar Kumari Devi


Comments

  1. An interesting enigma indeed. Perhaps some of the contemporary ladies from Kangra who have married other Ranas could shed light on this mystery.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Some stories,like the Mona Lisa, and I guess this one too are best left to be an enigma forever.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dear Ranaji,

    Jauhar Kumari is indeed a mysterious woman, but why brood over her caste if nearly all of the former royal family carry a significant proportion of her blood in their veins? It's easy to speculate that she was from a lower caste because her lineage is unknown and most historians seem to suggest it but the fact that the royal family were related to her meant that it was very difficult to publish such things back then, and now, thank to our education system, no one considers History a readable subject and I doubt if any research will be done upon her. However, thanks to people like you there's always something to hope.

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