|July 30, 2009. Yesterday was hot, muggy and overcast in New York. The kind of weather where you feel like you had too much to drink the night before but you’d only had one. Then about three, the rains came. They let up after about an hour, and then about seven the skies darkened and they swept in again, monsoon-like. Standing out on my terrace taking in the moist cool air after the heavy humidty, it was a pleasure to watch. The drama of Mother Nature. The trees and the plants swaying sharply in the winds.
Forty-eight hours ago, from India came the news that Gayatri Devi, the Rajmata of Jaipur had died at age 90. Born Princess Gayatri, she was ever known as Ayesha. As you will read in her obituary of her in today’s Telegraph of London, she was the granddaughter of the Maharajah of Cooch-Behar and the Maharajah of Jodhpur, as well as the wife of the Maharajah of Jaipur. Prominent in the last days of the Raj, she was famous in her own country as well as a fixture in international society. Later in life when she became active in Indian politics she gained a new fame.
I had heard of her but had never seen a photograph of her before that meeting. I didn’t know, for example that she was a famous beauty also. At sixty-one, she still possessed that beauty. There were grey strands running through her thick and wavy black hair. It added a touch of worldliness and perhaps wisdom to these eyes.
She was wearing a silk chiffon sari, a print of many soft colors that complemented the colors in the cushions on Sarah’s terrace. Her dress was a cultural departure from the way everyone else was dressed (American dressy-leisure). However, she had such a natural regal bearing that her dress changed the rules; she was the presence.
She was also very nice. Soft-spoken but forthright; active in conversation, interested/curious, given to discussing things rather than light table talk to finish the meal. Our friend Sarah, herself a devotee of the international social life, was also an avid follower of the international political scene. She wore the family name, fully conscious of its image in the world; and whether or not she was really equipped for the part, she played it thoroughly at least at table. At her dinner table, at her house, she held forth. As it was with everyone else, the Rajmata of Jaipur was mainly a Guest of Sarah. Ayesha, I could see, was amused as well as charmed by Sarah, as was I. She was a good guest.
Only a few years before, Ayesha had been thrown in jail by Indira Ghandi, for political reasons. It was hard on her but recounting even parts of it at dinner that late June night in Beverly Hills, she referred to it as if it had been a deeply annoying experience but nothing more.
This brilliant obituary from the Telegraph of London, will fill out the canvas of this remarkable world figure for you:
Known to her friends as "Ayesha", she caused a minor sensation in India when, in 1940, she married for love rather than by parental decree, to become the third wife of the dashing Maharaja of Jaipur.
In 1962 she created a very different sensation when, as the Republic of India's first princess to stand for parliament, she won her seat by the largest landslide ever recorded. A decade later she won international sympathy when she was imprisoned for six months during the period of Indira Gandhi's notorious State of Emergency.
When Gayatri Devi was 12 she fell for the most glamorous young man in India, the Maharaja of Jaipur, then 21 years old. He was not only exceedingly rich and handsome but also a nine-handicap polo player, leading his Jaipur polo team to victory in every tournament they entered. Maharaja Man Singh already had two wives, both married for reasons of state, but this did not prevent him from becoming captivated by this beautiful and spirited tomboy princess who was quite unlike the more orthodox Rajput ladies whom he knew.
When Gayatri Devi was sent to the Monkey Club finishing school in Knightsbridge, they met secretly and became unofficially engaged. Their romance aroused opposition on all sides, and when in 1939 they let it be known that they intended to marry, there was consternation in princely circles.
In the Cooch Behar family, it was feared that Gayatri Devi was condemning herself to a life in purdah in a feudal state that would destroy her lively personality.
|In the event, the marriage was a great success. The third Maharani of Jaipur accepted her role as the Maharaja's favourite but junior wife with good grace. She adjusted to the formality and restrictions of life in a Rajput royal zanana, but at the same time used her authority to bring the palace women forward into the 20th century.
The coming of the war helped to speed up this process of emancipation. The Maharani organised various forms of war-work, and in 1943 opened the Gayatri Devi School for Girls with 40 students and an English teacher. It became known as one of the finest schools in India.
Although Maharaja Man Singh was appointed State Governor, it soon became apparent that all power lay with the ruling Congress Party.
Concern at what they judged to be misrule and abuse of power drew an ever-increasing number of former rulers or members of their circle into politics in opposition to the Congress Party. Many joined the Swatantra Party, among them Maharani Gayatri Devi.
In 1962 she made her first public speech and contested her first election, winning an overwhelming victory over her Congress opponent as well as a place in The Guinness Book of Records by securing a majority of 175,000 votes. The success of princely candidates in this and subsequent elections, however, virtually ensured their extinction as an order.
In 1967 the Maharani again stood for election in her home constituency and again won her seat; but when the opposition parties in Rajasthan attempted to form a state government, presidential rule was proclaimed, leading eventually to a return of a Congress government. In the same year the Congress Party adopted a resolution to abolish the princes' privy purses and privileges that had been granted to them in exchange for their voluntary surrender of their states.
In May 1970 the government introduced a bill to abolish the princely order, and the Maharaja and Maharani flew to England. A month later Man Singh collapsed and died while umpiring a polo match in Cirencester. Colonel Bhawani Singh, Maharaja Man Singh's eldest son by his first wife, was proclaimed Maharaja and the widowed Gayatri Devi became Rajmata, or Queen Mother.
Although still in mourning, Rajmata Gayatri Devi was persuaded to stand for parliament for a third term in 1971, and in the same year witnessed the passing of the bill that finally derecognised the princely order. This rewriting of the constitution signalled a new and ugly phase in Indian politics that the Rajmata and her stepson experienced at first hand when, in July 1975, both were arrested and incarcerated in Tihar Jail.
This was the start of the State of Emergency period when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended all laws and made mass arrests on the ground that the security of the state was under threat. No serious charges were ever laid against either the Rajmata or Col Bhawani Singh.
After nearly six months' imprisonment in humiliating conditions, Gayatri Devi's spirit remained as strong as ever but her health began to break down. She was taken to hospital and eventually released on parole, on certain conditions that remained in force until Mrs Gandhi called an election in 1977 which saw her temporarily bundled out of office.
|Rajmata Gayatri Devi's two decades of widowhood were not spent in seclusion, as might have been expected of the widow of a Rajput ruler. She and her husband had shared a great zest for sport and entertainment and, to the indignation of the traditionalists, the Rajmata continued to live life to the full.
She loved to travel, spending the summer months based in a small flat in Knightsbridge and her winters in Jaipur, where she held court in the dower house (Lilypool) that her husband had built after their first home, Rambagh Palace, had been transformed into a hotel. A list of VIPs from the hotel was daily sent over to Lilypool when she was in residence, and if not otherwise occupied she would invite them over for a glass of champagne in the evening. Those who displeased her were billed for the champagne.
|This was entirely in character for, despite the wealth of the Jaipur royal house, both Gayatri Devi and her husband were renowned for their parsimoniousness, and the Rajmata was never an ostentatious spender. None the less, when her autobiography, A Princess Remembers, was published in paperback in England in the 1980s she asked her publishers if she might have a chauffeur-driven car for a morning's shopping; the chauffeur later reported that the "shopping" constituted a drive out to Surrey and the purchase of a large house.
Gayatri Devi had a natural beauty that achieved international recognition after Cecil Beaton photographed her in Jaipur in 1943; and she retained that beauty into old age. She never made a great performance about her appearance, however, any more than she put on the airs of a maharani. This simplicity of manner coupled with an unforced charm and good humour won her many friends throughout the world, many of whom she entertained generously in Jaipur.
|To the end of her life she continued to take a great interest in the school she had founded and in all that was happening in Jaipur. A fine horsewoman in her own right, she remained a keen follower of polo and enjoyed breeding racehorses.
Rajmata Gayatri Devi's son by her marriage to the Maharaja of Jaipur predeceased her.