Sonia Dhami is President & CEO of ArtandTolerance.com and Trustee of the Sikh Foundation. The views expressed are her own.
Sophia Duleep Singh’s memory is often just limited to who she was born as– the granddaughter of Maharani Jind Kaur and Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the mighty ruler of the Punjab.
Kanwal Dhaliwal, an accomplished artist from the United Kingdom has painted her powerful portrait, imbued with the colors of resistance.
This painting has replaced my visual memory of Sophia from a high society women draped in jewels, dressed for a ball to someone who used her fame and position to fight for gender equality in the early 20th century.
Sophia’s story, of a royal princess and a committed suffragette, is a captivating one. She championed equality and justice playing a significant role in the movement to win the right to vote for women.
Born in 1876 in England to Maharani Bamba Muller & the Maharaja Duleep Singh, the deposed Maharaja of the Punjab. She grew up amongst the British royalty with Queen Victoria as her godmother.
Her early life was a whirlwind of social activity – attending dances & balls, breeding championship dogs, attending horse races and high fashion. She also enjoyed photography, music and cycling.
In 1903, she made a secret trip to India along with her younger sister Bamba, which left an indelible impression on her, changing her outlook to life.
She again visited India in 1907 and traveled to the Punjab, visiting Lahore and Amritsar and seeing for herself her father’s lost kingdom.
Here she came in contact with Indian freedom fighters like Lala Lajpat Rai and developed empathy for the struggles of the people.
On her return to England, she joined the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1909 and became a leading member and campaigner for the movement for women’s right to vote.
She was part of the first deputation to the House of Commons, on 18 November 1910, called ‘Black Friday’, with Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and others.
Sophia also joined the Women’s Tax Resistance League (WTRL), which refused to pay taxes on the principle that women should not have to pay taxes when they did not have the vote to determine the use of those taxes.
She wrote, “When the women of England are enfranchised I shall pay my taxes willingly. If I am not a fit person for the purposes of representation, why should I be a fit person for taxation?”
An interesting anecdote tells of when Sophia waited in the crowd outside the Prime Ministers home. At an opportune moment she hurled herself in front of the Prime Minister Henry Asquith’s car as he was leaving 10 Downing Street and unfurled a banner she was hiding inside her fur coat, which read, “Give women the Vote”.
It is this scene that is recreated in Dhaliwals painting.
Looking closely at this painting, we can read the symbolism that the artist has included for us– we see Sophia as a calm and resolute young woman, dressed in the fashion of the day.
In the background is the Hampton Court Palace, where Sophia lived. The palace symbolizes the British monarchy as well and is a pointer to her own royal status.
The sky above is darkened by the smoky World War 1 fighter planes, which tell us of the period.
The Golden throne of her grandfather Maharaja Ranjit Singh is lying toppled by the side of the road, a poignant reminder of their lost kingdom.
Behind Sophia is the car with the words “Prime Minister” partially visible on the number plate and a red banner with the words “GIVE WOMEN THE VOTE” partially under the wheel of the car and partially draping the princess.
The colors and symbolism of this painting leave a strong impact on the viewer.
While Sophia was never arrested, probably to avoid embarrassment to the authorities, many of her compatriots were. She willingly sold her jewelry to pay the fines and secure their release.
Herself a princess, she nevertheless chose to Stand outside her home in Hampton Court Palace and sell “The Suffragette” newspaper. This is the image that is commemorated on a UK postal stamp.
The movement finally won its first victory in 1918, with the passage of the Representation of the People’s Act giving women over the age of 30years the right to vote.
It was only in 1928 the Equal Franchise Act gave all women over the age of 21years the right to vote on par with men.
During the First World War, she fundraised and tended to the wounded Indian soldiers. Sikh soldiers could hardly believe “that the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh sat by their bedsides in a nurse’s uniform”.
Sophia is commemorated on a statue of the suffragette leader Millicent Garret Fawcett opposite Westminster, unveiled on the 100th anniversary of the 1918 Act. The base of the statue has pictures of the leading suffragettes of the time including Sophia.
In her will, she made provisions that money should be given to schools for girls in India. She died in her sleep on 22 August 1948.
Her exemplary life and contributions are a fitting example of inspirational women on whose shoulders we stand today.