• Tuesday, February 20, 2024


Indira Devi: The Radio Princess

Indira Raje of Baroda as a young girl with her mother, Chimnabai II (Photo credit: WIkipedia)

By: Radhakrishna N S


WHEN I think of south Asian women on BBC Radio, I auto­matically think of women such as Anita Rani, the new co-host of Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. But did you know that there was a south Asian woman who graced the BBC airwaves during the Second World War?

Princess Maharajkumari Indi­ra Devi was born in 1912 to Ma­haraja Paramjit Singh and Maha­rani Brinda of Kapurthala. Her parents had been betrothed in an arranged marriage from a very young age and had an infa­mously unhappy marriage, un­doubtedly accelerated by her fa­ther’s infidelity. Perhaps this contributed to her decision in 1935 to leave India for Britain, without her parents’ consent. She was 23 at the time and only told her sisters, Princesses Our­milla and Sushila of her plans.

Princess Devi had ambitions of Hollywood stardom, a dream which moved closer to reality when she was successful in stud­ying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA); the oldest and most prestigious drama school in the UK. She lived in Kensington while studying, not having to travel too far to study in Bloomsbury. Her road to fame seemed certain when she be­came associated with the British film producer Alexander Korda, famous for work such as The Third Man. Unfortunately, the timing was not right for her big break, with the world edging closer to war, and the German invasion of Poland in 1939 plunging Britain and her empire into a war like no other.

Unlike during the first world war, the government decided not to rely on female volunteers, but instead conscripted women to work. Most women chose be­tween working in industry, farm­ing or for one of the military aux­iliary services. Princess Devi drove ambulances during air raids, which became increasing­ly frequent (and dangerous) when the Blitz began in Septem­ber 1940. It’s worth noting that the then Princess (and now Queen) Elizabeth II did a similar job to Princess Devi, driving am­bulances as well as being trained as a mechanic. Princess Devi al­so worked as a postal censor. This was an incredibly important job as the government were par­anoid that key information could leak, as well as being worried about information in letters etc having a negative impact on mo­rale. It would have been Princess Devi’s job to make judgements on what was appropriate and what wasn’t.

In 1942, Princess Devi joined the BBC, for what would be a me­dia career that would last for more than three decades. One of her first roles was to host a radio show aimed to support the mo­rale of Indian soldiers stationed in the Middle East and Mediterrane­an. It is estimated that 2.5 million Indians served during the second world war, the largest volunteer army in history. Programmes like this formed what we now know as the BBC World Service. She later broadcast a show called The De­bate continues, which centred around the politics of the day; she was often the only woman pre­sent in the Press Gallery of the House of Commons.

Princess Devi worked for the BBC until 1968. Little is known of her later life. She died in Ibiza in 1979. What is extraordinary about her story is how she lived within a context we are all so fa­miliar with; war-time Britain. Yet her story is relatively unknown; another example of the sort of hidden history I find so fascinat­ing. If anyone has any other in­formation about her please do get in touch @thehistorycorridor on Instagram!

Shalina Patel is the head of teaching and learning in a large comprehensive school in north-west London. Patel runs the History Corridor on Instagram, which has more than 15,000 followers and showcases the diverse history that she teaches. She has delivered training to more than 200 school leaders since July 2020 on decolonising the curriculum. Patel won the Pearson Silver Teaching Award 2018 for Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School.

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