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Remembering Gayatri Devi: The beguiling but mercurial Princess

By Kishore Singh
August 01, 2009 11:45 IST
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She threw extravagant parties but could be miserly with the servants, loved polo and also champagne, was autocratic and mercurial. Kishore Singh, who worked closely with Gayatri Devi, remembers the beguiling maharani.

Gayatri Devi was everything you would expect of a royal -- willful, capricious, demanding, autocratic, beguiling, extrovert, oh, and definitely mercurial. When we first met, in Delhi, at her Lodhi Estate home, I had been asked to ghost-write a book for her on Jaipur for which we required extensive discussions. She told me what she wanted in the broadest of terms, leaving the rest to me to sketch out. We met as the text progressed, but she wasn't too interested in how it was developing. I would call her at her palace in Jaipur, to have her pick the phone and say something crackling about the former fiefdom of Chomu, the aristocratic house that had opposed her husband, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II's adoption by the Kachchawa house of Amber. On other occasions, I might hear conversation and cocktail glasses in the background, but she'd curtly refuse to point out any clarifications I might require. "I'm in my puja," she told me on one such occasion -- even though the laughter in the background was hardly muted -- "please call me tomorrow morning."

Royal families have always been known for the gossip generated around their lives, but in the case of Gayatri Devi, formerly Maharani and lately Rajmata of the house of Jaipur, reams of it will play out after her death in the Pink City, into which she came in 1939 as Man Singh's third wife. The Maharaja -- or Jai, as he was known -- and Ayesha -- as those who knew her well called her -- had married for love, but the Rajput royal houses, in particular, tended to look down on the blue-bloods of Cooch Behar, from which she traced her ancestry. As a result, the new Maharani was greatly envied but also greatly maligned. It was ironic, therefore, that she set the fashion trends for the nobility in her state -- other maharanis wanted to wear their hair in equally fashionable bobs, drape themselves in the French chiffons Gayatri's mother had first made popular, and ride in slacks.

But literature has warned us of the tragic trap that awaits beauty. Gayatri Devi's early life showed no hint of it, however. Though it was her mother, a Baroda princess, who had invited Jai to her Calcutta salon for his good looks and rapier wit, it was her giddy-headed teenager who fell in love with the Maharaja, and with whom she had romantic trysts in London, resulting in her engagement as soon as she came of age, and a life outside the confines of purdah in conservative Jaipur at the age of 20. Jai's earlier marriages, to an aunt and a niece from Jodhpur, were part of an alliance in which he had no choice, though he had demanded and received, as his dowry, the celebrated Marwar polo team. Ever since, it is Jaipur and not Jodhpur that is closely associated with polo.

When Gayatri Devi arrived in Jaipur, she was not confined to the City Palace, unlike Jai's other wives, First Her Highness and Second Her Highness, but made her home in Rambagh Palace, recently redecorated by designers from London. Cecil Beaton came to do her portraits, and she took to a life of riding, shikar and more opulent parties than even her extravagant parents had thrown. And yet, she could be miserly, snubbing servants for being generous with the rations during the war years, and keeping a tight rein on the kitchen, something no other maharani had been known to do at least in Jaipur.

Maharaja Man Singh died while playing polo in the United Kingdom in 1970, and his son from his first wife, 'Bubbles' Bhawani Singh was crowned Maharaja, but Gayatri Devi did not retreat to a life of isolation as Rajmata. Though she had won a landslide victory at the hustings in 1962 as a Swatantra candidate, a position she defended in 1967 and again in 1971, it earned her the ire of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and marked a turning point in her relationship with her stepson, Maharaja Bhawani Singh, who was perturbed by her politics of estrangement from the Centre.

Isolated by the family, she found she had no one to turn to when the forfeiture of nine pounds sterling from her dressing table found her incarcerated in the infamous Tihar Jail under the draconian Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. But at least in jail she was not alone -- keeping her company was the Rajmata of Gwalior; together, they were surrounded by petty criminals and prostitutes, but did not appeal to Indira Gandhi for clemency.

Gayatri Devi's only child, a son, Jagat Singh, married a Thai princess, but was known to abuse drugs and alcohol, a deadly combination that cost him his health and life in the nineties. His estranged wife had since been fighting a custody battle with her mother-in-law over their inheritance in Jaipur, though Gayatri Devi always said she had a loving relationship with her grandchildren -- her grandson was by her bedside at the time of her death.

A patron of equestrian sport -- she was often seen at polo fields in Jaipur and Delhi -- Gayatri Devi supported various trusts, a stud farm and, of course, the legendary Maharani Gayatri Devi College, the institution she started as a young bride to encourage noblemen to send their daughters to school. Her memoir, A Princess Remembers, has been on bestselling lists around the country for three decades now, and she has written various illustrated books, as well as shared recipes from her kitchen with writer Dharmendra Kanwar for the book Gourmet's Gateway: A Royal Collection. More recently, she had endorsed the Arisia diamond solitaire collection, no doubt using the revenue for one of several charities and trusts she supported

Following independence, Jaipur was chosen as the capital of the newly formed state of Rajasthan, and Man Singh was chosen Rajpramukh. He realised early on that the princes would have to serve their own financial needs, and had converted their dream home, Rambagh, into a palace hotel in the sixties. On his death, Gayatri Devi moved out of the palace to Lily Pool, an annexe on the estate, where she lived surrounded by the Lalique and Wedgwood and Rosenthal that she loved so dearly. Yet, she was often spotted at Rambagh's Polo Bar, asking for a glass of her favourite champagne, or a cocktail.

Wooed by the paparazzi till the end, Gayatri Devi became, in essence, the face and symbol for royal India. She was easily inflammable -- I remember her admonishing her son Jagat, a young man then, for wanting to sit in on one of our book readings -- disliked pesky journalists, with whom she rarely shared information other than the most banal, and tended to send off bounty hunters on unenviable treasure hunts.

I had been warned about a falling out she had with her biographer, Shantha Rama Rau, but even so, her turnaround was unexpected. When the text was published, and an advance copy of the book sent to her, she reacted in a way I was told was entirely in character: She called up at home on a Sunday morning and accused me of misrepresenting facts. We met on several occasions after that, but she was no more friendly.

To the end, though, she embodied an elegance and way of life that, like the princes, belongs to another era. Nor would the ninety-year-old romantic have been daunted by her own demise, something she must have become aware of during her last outing in London when, critically ill, she chose to return to Jaipur where she hoped to breathe her last. From here, the ride into the clouds with Jai would seem to her at least a fairytale possibility.

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Kishore Singh
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