Thank you to our new guest contributor, Lady M, who has shared a splendor-filled royal story from India.
India has been a republic for many decades now, but the royal lady we are going to talk about today has remained a huge character in our popular culture still today. She was Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, a legend in all senses of the word.
Below, Gayatri Devi in a portrait with her emeralds.
Gayatri Devi was born on 23rd May, 1919, in one such princely state of Cooch Behar, a small, secluded state near the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in eastern India. Her father, Maharaja Jitendra Narayan, died very early due to complications caused by chronic alcoholism. Her mother, Indira Devi, was a legendary beauty and trailblazing icon in her own right.
Gayatri spent an idyllic childhood in Cooch Behar, Calcutta and Europe. She, in her own words, was a tomboy and spent her days hunting, riding and engaging in all kinds of sports. She studied in London, Shantiniketan (in Rabindranath Tagore’s institution), and Lausanne, later taking secretarial courses in London.
While in London, Gayatri Devi fell in love with the Maharaja Man Singh II of Jaipur (called Jai), who was then one of the most important and glamorous princes. Indira Devi was strongly opposed to the couple marrying, and their courtship was clandestine. There were concerns that becoming the Maharaja’s third wife (he was married twice already, and had children too) would rob Gayatri of the independence and dignity she was used to, and that she would have to spend the rest of her days in strict purdah (a custom still prevalent in Jaipur then). But after many obstacles, Jai and Gayatri’s marriage did take place in May, 1940.
Even in wartime, it was the societal event of the decade. Gayatri Devi narrated in her memoir how her fashionable mother collected her wedding luxurious trousseau from all over Europe. Gifts were incredible too – a black Bentley, a Packard, a house in the hills and a magnificent ruby parure among others. The ceremony was extravagant beyond belief — both Rajput traditions of the Maharaja’s family and Bengali traditions of Cooch Behar were incorporated. The whole town of Cooch Behar was decked up, there were processions of elephants and horses, massive feasts and thousands of royals and nobles in attendance.
After her marriage, Gayatri Devi became the Third Maharani of Jaipur. But unlike the others, she was a public figure and the Maharaja’s consort. She was instrumental in revolutionising the medieval palace life in Jaipur. The custom of purdah was done away with, as were many other orthodox customs. She was also known for her great beauty, being named one of Vogue’s most beautiful women. Her elegant style of chiffon saris and pearls was copied all over, and is considered a benchmark of regal elegance today.
Gayatri Devi photographed by Cecil Beaton 1940
Below, Gayatri Devi and her family.
The political atmosphere in India was complex in the late 40’s, not only because of the war but also because the Independence Movement was at it’s peak. In 1947, the British finally left India. The new nations of India and Pakistan were created. All the princely states were integrated into the new unions. The Maharaja of Jaipur too signed the instrument of accession, but remained the titular maharaja. The country adopted a new constitution, and more or less, the age of the nawabs and maharajas was over.
In 1962, in a surprising move, Gayatri Devi decided to enter active politics. She contested in the parliamentary elections from Jaipur. And she won, and how! She held the record for largest landslide victory. She served as a MP till about 1971, with a stint in Spain when the Maharaja was appointed Ambassador.
In 1970, the Maharaja died after succumbing to injuries from a polo accident in England. By this time she was a dominant political figure and was even jailed due to alleged political vendetta during what we call the Emergency era in 1975.
After being released from jail, she retired from politics for good. She worked on a memoir which was released in 1976, worked to promote women’s education, tourism and traditional Jaipuri arts. She was also a legendary hostess, entertaining everyone from Jackie Kennedy, the Mountbattens to the Queen and Prince Philip.
Gayatri Devi passed away in 2009. She is still revered for her beauty and glamour, for her trailblazing life and her work for the common people in Jaipur. In a nutshell, she was a fairy-tale princess by all measures.