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Culture: The Prince of celebrations

festival thet (2910043)
festival thet (2910043)

This weekend sees the start of the two-week Festival of Thetford & Punjab, a celebration of two cultures brought together by Duleep Singh, the last Maharajah

The Festival of Thetford & Punjab kicks off this weekend commemorating the 125th anniversary of the death of the last Maharajah of Punjab, who made Thetford his home.

With a packed programme of events over two weeks, the cultural heritage festival will celebrate the legacy of Duleep Singh who, having been exiled from India, became a favourite of Queen Victoria and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, hunting and shooting with the royal family and travelling across Europe, before settling at Elveden Hall.

Here he and his wife welcomed six children and so began the shared British- Punjab heritage that can still be seen today.

The festival will have something for everyone from cinema, literature, poetry and cookery to music, dance, crafts and the arts. . . and even a special T20 cricket match.

Popular comedian and award-winning broadcaster Hardeep Singh Kohli will

appear in conversation with Peter Bance to talk about his book Indian Takeaway and his BBC documentary Desi DNA, based on Duleep Singh.

Why not join chef Paul Singh Babra as he demonstrates traditional Punjabi dishes, visit special exhibitions at the Ancient House Museum, discover how the Maharajah’s son helped found the museum or take in a little outdoor theatre as Time Will Tell portrays the life and times of the King of the Punjab.

Shrabani Basu, author of Victoria And Abdul, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film, is taking part, as is Sathnam Sanghera, British journalist and author of The Boy With the Topknot, who will talk about his memoirs.

Sitar player and composer Jonathan Mayer will showcase his musical talents, while classical sitar and tabla ensemble Chakardar will perform at a curry night and talk by Sikh historian Peter Bance.

All this and more will culminate in a grand finalé as the festival joins Thetford Town Council’s annual River Festival, which will see a mix of Thetford and Punjab cultures and traditions parade from King Street to the riverside on July 21.

Here Morris dancing will mix with Bhangra, there will be henna hand painting and curry stalls, Sikh martial arts, folk dance. . . in a non-stop, colourful, cultural extravaganza.

> The Festival of Thetford & Punjab, July 7-21, has been organised by the Essex Cultural Diversity project.

Festival director Indi Sandhu said: “The cultural legacy of Duleep Singh is as significant for Thetford as it is for the Punjab. The festival provides an opportunity for audiences to learn more about his fascinating story, and get involved in a range of activities, talks and events. It is also the chance for us all to further explore the under-appreciated links between Thetford and the Punjab due to this shared heritage.”

To see the full programme of events, see essexcdp.com/event/ftap/ or leapinghare.org

The last Maharajah

Duleep Singh was born in Lahore in 1838 and became Maharajah at the age of five.

But the Punjab was the centre of unrest and when the Anglo-Sikh war broke out in 1845, the British stepped in. Four years later, the Punjab was annexed to British India and Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last ruler of the Sikh kingdom, was removed from the throne.

The young prince was placed into the guardianship of army surgeon John Spencer Logan and his wife, who taught him a very English way of life which led to him coverting to Christianity (something he later regretted and reconverted to Sikhism).

When he arrived in England in 1854 he became a favourite of Queen Victoria and enjoyed life in the royal circle. The Queen had a portrait painted of him, which hangs in Osborne House, and she was godmother to several of his children.

In 1863, he moved to Elveden and during his time there restored the church, cottages and school. He also transformed the run-down estate into a game preserve.

But by the 1870s, the Black Prince, as he was known, was in debt and tried to reclaim his land in India, a move thwarted by the British government.

He died, aged 55, in Paris in 1893 and his body was brought back to Elveden to be buried in the local church alongside his wife and teenage son.