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  • Writer's pictureAkasha Usmani

A colonial love story: Australian actress who married an Indian maharaja

A look into the life and legacy of Elsie Caroline, the first Australian maharani.

An actress by profession, Elsie Caroline got married to Maharaja Gopal in 1909

Over the past years, India-Australia relationship has grown tremendously. The relations between the two countries is at an all-time high. Not only do the countries share their love for curry and cricket but now have strong and extensive educational, cultural, bilateral, strategic and people-to-people ties. Even though this relationship goes back to the time when India and Australia were British colonies, the shared connection of colonialism between the two countries has many untold stories. One such story, is the story of an Australian actress, Elsie Caroline Thompson who married an Indian King, Gopal Saran Narain Singh, Maharaja of Tikari. She was the first Australian to marry an Indian king. Their epic love story is covered by Elsie’s great nephew, Chris Kunz, who wrote the novel “Maharani : The First Australian Princess”. The book gives an insider’s view of how two people from not just different continents but also cultures came together at a time when it was considered nothing short of a scandal. Elsie Caroline Thompson was born on August 2, 1883, to James Thompson and Mary Anne Roffey in Sydney, Australia. From a very young age, she had dreamt of becoming a stage actress. And so, her career as a stage actress, singer and comedienne began at the age of 17. As a young performer, she made her debut in Mr Hawtrey's production of "A Message from Mars”. In 1903, she began performing in theater in Cape Town, which was associated with Eugene Sandow. Later that year, she married George Sittwell, an artist from the same company, who had moved to Calcutta but destiny had different plans for her. In 1904, Elsie Caroline traveled to Calcutta, India, for a show, where Maharaja Gopal Saran Narain Singh was present along with other kings and princes. Among the Maharajas present, two of them proposed to Elsie, one of them being Maharaja Gopal. It was the proposal of Maharaja Gopal that Elsie accepted. In 1906, she traveled to Sydney where she officially divorced from George Sittwell, after which she returned to Calcutta. From medieval times to the Mughal era, the Tikari family had a significant impact on Bihar's socioeconomic and political history. Tikari raj, was a zamindari estate which belonged to a Brahmin community in South Bihar. Maharaja Gopal Saran was the first Indian prince to compete in motor racing in France and England. Being a motor race enthusiast, he used to participate in races in Europe. He also offered his service as a lieutenant during World War I in 1914.

In 1909, Elsie got married to Maharaja Gopal, becoming his second wife. After becoming the queen of Tikari, she converted to Hinduism and later changed her name to Sita Devi. Her parents had opposed the marriage since marriages between such diverse cultures was not common at the time. Chris Kunz, in an interview with SBS Hindi stated, "110 years ago in 1909, it was extremely unusual, almost shocking to many people." However, the couple frequently traveled to Europe and other countries for motor racing events that the Maharaja was participating in. Though their permanent residence remained in India. Their life for some time seemed idyllic. Unfortunately, their marriage did not last long. Elsie soon left India to settle in Melbourne. The love story may not have had a happy ending but it undoubtedly was a story of enduring love, sacrifice and challenges. At a time when geographical as well as cultural distances seemed unsurmountable in traditional societies, the Australian actress from Sydney and the Indian Maharaja from Tikari made it seem so simple.

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