Umrao Singh Majithia

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Umrao Singh Shergil

Umrao Singh Majithia (1870-1954), the father of the famous colourful and innovative painter Amrita Sher-Gil, was was born at Majitha, a village in Amritsar district. He was the eldest son of Raja Surat Singh Majithia. Umrao Singh attended school at Amritsar and later joined the Aitchison College, Lahore. He was married to Narindar Kumari, daughter of Gulab Singh of Atari. Together they visited England in 1896. They went again in 1897 to attend the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. As head of the Majitha family, Umrao Singh was privileged to attend the Coronation darbars in 1903 and 1910. But the feeling that he belonged to a subject race always weighed heavily on his mind. Although he had many friends among the English, he kept virtually aloof amid all social glitter. He began to be looked upon with suspicion by the British and, in secret official correspondence, he was termed 'disaffected.'

Umrao Singh's second wife, Madame Antoinette, was a Hungarian lady whom he had met in Lahore at the house of Princess Sofia Duleep Singh. He married her in 1911. In the autumn of 1912, he went with her to Budapest. While he was still there, World War I broke out and he found himself stranded in an 'enemy' country. Owing partly to his being a man of culture and intellect and partly on account of his wife not having abjured her Hungarian nationality, he was not interned. He had his sympathies with the India Germany group, then conspiring against the British. The Germans aimed to use this group to raise troops to invade India through the north-west. Raja Mahendra Partap was chosen to head the movement. An expedition under Von Hentig, equipped with a personal letter from Kaiser William II to the King of Afghanistan and letters from German Government to various ruling princes of India, was despatched in 1915 along with Raja Mahendra Partap, to travel overland to Kabul. Their plan was to win over Afghanistan and march a German Afghan army into India. Mahendra Partap was in touch with Umrao Singh who was related to him through the Atari family. In the autumn of 1915, the fortunes of the war hung in the balance evenly. From Baghdad Mahendra Partap wrote a letter to Umrao Singh which made him feel as if his friend had begun to waver.

Umrao Singh wrote to him a long letter to lift his morale. The letter, unfortunately, fell into the hands of the British. The Germans had a liaison office at Shiraz. In the winter of 1916-17, the German party had to escape precipitately leaving behind all their baggage. Among the papers then seized by the British was Umrao Singh's letter. Complicity of Umrao Singh in anti-British activities could no longer be in doubt. Steps were initiated in India to confiscate all his estates. Umrao Singh returned to India in 1921, after the general amnesty had been granted by the King for political offences during the war. Umrao Singh eschewed politics for the rest of his life. From 1929 to 1934, he lived in Paris for the education of his two daughters, Amrita and Indira. It was during this period that Amrita Shergil got the training in art that was to make her a world famous painter. The family finally returned to India in 1934. Umrao Singh had his estate in Gorakhpur, in Uttar Pradesh, and had built a house in Summer Hill, Shimla, where he spent most of his time amidst his vast collection of books. The death of their daughter Amrita in 1941 was a tremendous shock. His wife, Antoinette, passed away in 1948. Umrao Singh died in Delhi on 17 December 1954.