Last month Gayatri Devi, the Rajmata of Jaipur, died. Hailed as one of the most beautiful women in the world, she was also politically active and charitably driven. Mark McGinness reports on the end of an era.
Gayatri Devi was surely the last major figure of the Raj. She was certainly its most glamorous. Her mother was deep in Rider Haggard's novel, She, when Gayatri was born and always called her Ayesha after the book's mysterious goddess. Yet there was more to the Rajmata of Jaipur (the title she assumed in 1970), than princes, palaces, parties, palanquins and polo. Reflecting a disparate life and an extraordinary ability to adapt with the times, she had a double entry in the Guinness Book Of Records: the first for the most expensive wedding; the second for the largest electoral victory in the history of democracy. Vogue named her one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world - "a dream in saris and jewels". Clark Gable described her as one of the most beautiful women he had ever met. Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, said he had never seen such a striking and attractive bride and groom as the Maharajah of Jaipur and his Maharani. The country's first Indian governor-general, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, called her, "a combination of Sita, Lakshmi and the Rani of Jhansi".
She had another distinction. While a number of empresses (Tsarina Alexandra of Russia and the Empress Menen of Ethiopia) have been placed under house arrest, she was probably the only queen in the 20th century to have been imprisoned. But unlike the Tsarina, this Indian queen was to survive, retaining her legendary beauty and remaining a dignified and much admired figure beyond her state, even beyond her country. Her death in Jaipur on July 29, at the age of 90, produced a monsoon of nostalgic affection and homage from around the world.
The Indian President, Pratibha Patil, led tributes in recalling a "multi-faceted personality who made a deep impression on account of her work in public life, culture and art". The Prince of Wales had visited her in London only weeks before her death, reflecting her abiding links with Britain. Sociable to the last, as recently as June, the Rajmata had co-hosted with Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and Sarah, Duchess of York, a fund-raising party in London for Elephant Family, a charity to save the Asian elephant run by Mark Shand, the Prince of Wales' brother-in-law. Shand was probably the Rajmata's best friend in Britain; he named his only child, Ayesha, after her.
At home, the responses to her death reflected the end of an era. Coincidentally, Leela Naidu, the Indian actress whom Vogue also named among the world's leading beauties, had died the previous day. Today, Bollywood provides India with its princesses, founded on beauty and ability rather than birth. And it was her Bollywood successors who remembered her. Shammi Kapoor, who had met her 60 years ago, recalled, "In my generation, we had a perpetual crush on her and most of the female leads in the era were inspired from her persona." Former Miss India, the actress Celina Jaitley, echoed the awe in which Bollywood held her, "The best compliment that I have ever received was given to me by her. She told me in Bengali 'Always be the kind of woman that you are from inside on the outside.'"
In one sense, the Rajamata has forged a contemporary link with Bollywood through her great-nieces, the starlets Ria and Raima Sen, granddaughters of her elder sister, Ila Devi, and daughters of her niece-in-law, the actress Moon Moon Sen. Moon Moon was inspired by her manner and impeccable sense of style, which "despite her legacy, she was always simply dressed". It was certainly some legacy.
When Gayatri Devi was born in London on May 23, 1919, the Raj was at its apogee. Five hundred and sixty two princely families, while loyal to the British monarch, ruled in feudal splendour over two-fifths of the sub-continent, a greater area than western Europe. The little princess was the second daughter and fourth child of "Jit", the languid, handsome old Etonian Maharajah of Cooch Behar, one of the smaller states, now West Bengal, close to the Himalayan foothills of India's north-east.
As Lucy Moore portrayed in Maharanis (2004), her fascinating study of three generations, it was the women of the family who really shone. Gayatri's mother, the Maharani Indira, was the only daughter of the grander, richer Maharajah of Baroda, and his strong-willed wife, Chimnabai, both Europhiles. When Gayatri was three, Jit died of alcohol poisoning, a Cooch Behar curse. Indira became regent and really came into her own. If it were possible, her beauty even surpassed her daughter's. Seeing a portrait of her when visiting Gayatri, the actor Amitabh Bachchan pronounced Indira's beauty as "unmatched".
She was as revered in Cooch Behar (they called her "Ma") as she was popular in Europe, where her friends included Queen Mary, Noel Coward and Douglas Fairbanks. A reckless gambler, she was seen at a casino in Le Touquet, the fashionable French resort, grabbing her talisman as it crawled across the gaming table, a tiny live tortoise whose back was laden with three strips of emeralds, diamonds and rubies. Her affairs were so numerous some friends referred to her as "the Maharani of Couche Partout".
But she never lost her dignity or regal bearing. It was said that Ayesha stood in her adored mother's shadow and attentive to the philosophy of her fictional namesake, "Trust not to the future, for who knows what the future may bring! Therefore live to the day, and endeavour not to escape the dust which seems to be man's end." Having such a mother, Ayesha's childhood was an exotic mixture of pleasure and duty. She was educated at home by tutors and at Santiniketan near Calcutta where her nemesis, Indira Nehru, was a student. She also attended finishing schools in London and Lausanne as well as the London College of Secretaries. Her education gave her a throaty English accent that The Washington Post once noted, "makes her sound like an Indian Tallulah Bankhead".
By this time she had caught the eye and fallen in love with Jai, the dashing Old Harrovian Maharajah of Jaipur. Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II was one of India's best polo players and already blessed with two wives. He proposed to her in the back of a Bentley driving around Hyde Park in London, when she was 17 and he was 25. The worldly Indira, although a great friend of Jai's, was reluctant to see her daughter as a "Third Her Highness", while Ayesha's brother warned her of Jai's fondness for women. She blissfully replied that he would no longer need to be, once he married her. He may not have always been faithful but he remained devoted to her. For the first time, he had married for love.
Ayesha was taken to the zenana (women's quarters) of the 1,000-room City Palace to meet Jai's wives, princesses from Jodhpur, the first an older aunt and the second, her niece who had been contracted in marriage to him at the age of five. He already had an heir ("Bubbles", now the last, still-living Maharaja), two other sons (Joey and Pat) and a daughter (Mickey). Second Her Highness, Kishore Kunwar ("Jo Didi"), was to become a confidante, mentor and friend of Ayesha's.
The wedding took place in May, 1940, in Cooch Behar. Cannons and a band were followed by the groom with dancing girls, scouts, 40 nobles and 40 elephants. As Bengali brides' feet cannot touch the ground, Ayesha was carried in a silver palanquin. The rites went on so long that Jai called out to the priests to hurry up. Florentine sheets and Ferragamo shoes and bags, and Parisian nightgowns made up her trousseau. She was given a Bentley, a house in the Himalayan foothills, a two-seater Packard, diamonds and rubies.
When she arrived in Calcutta on her honeymoon, staff from the palace dismissed all the male servants and covered her railway carriage with canvas screens. The City Palace zenana was home to 400 women - widowed relatives and their daughters, ladies-in-waiting, maids and eunuchs. In the 1940s the Maharani of Patiala, for example, lived a vigorous outdoor life, riding and shooting - and yet all the while was in purdah. Following both her mother and Baroda grandmother, Ayesha eschewed purdah and organised the Women's Red Cross. Jai was also keen for reform. Ayesha told him, "Nobody's going to follow me. But give me a school and I promise you within 10 years purdah will be broken."
The Maharani Gayatri Devi School was then established and it has become one of the country's most prestigious schools, with 3,000 pupils. Even so, at Rambagh, their pink-washed palace in Jaipur, Ayesha lived at first in half-purdah, constantly deferred to. She became a little grand until one of her brothers exclaimed, "Who the hell do you think you are - Queen Mary?" Soon she was hunting (killing 27 tigers until she gave up, feeling sorry for the animals), riding, wearing trousers and playing tennis. During the war, Ayesha (rather like Princess Elizabeth in the late 1940s) enjoyed being an officer's wife after Jai joined the British Brigade of Guards. But by 1948 Jaipur was just another state in a newly independent India. Jai's passion for polo took the couple away from the weight of formality and tradition. Amitabh Bachchan remembers, as a young student at Delhi University, going to Jaipur Polo ground watching the Maharani "in her soft and pastel flowered chiffon's, a picture of grace and beauty Never in my born days had I ever imagined that I would get to meet this lady."
Prince Philip, a fellow player, became a friend as was his uncle, Lord Mountbatten. They spent time abroad in Grosvenor Square in London and on their estates in East Sussex and Berkshire as Jai's sons, and later his and Ayesha's son, Jagat (born in 1951), followed him to Harrow. Queen Elizabeth came to Jaipur to visit, as did Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy, who famously rode an elephant. Similarities between the two young legendary women were inevitable.
Opposed to Nehru's socialism, in 1961 Ayesha joined the Swatantra Party of Chakravarti Rajagopalachari (the very day that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip came to stay). Later that year she campaigned throughout the villages of Rajasthan in a 1948 Buick. Constantly heralded with cries of "Long live our Maharani" and showered with garlands and flower petals (she suffered appalling hay fever in silence) she triumphed in the polls winning 192,909 of 246,516 votes. This was the greatest win in the history of democracy. She modestly attributed her success to her husband. "Although the princely states had been abolished in 1948, the people still looked upon me as their Maharani. I was my husband's wife, and they had every respect and love for him. That's why they voted for me." She would be elected twice more to the country's lower house (Lok Sabha). In 1956, Jai lost the role he had been promised for life, as ceremonial head of state, and two years later, having lost many of his guards to the national Army, he had Rambagh turned into a hotel. The fortified pink-hued City Palace became home. Then in 1970 her beloved Jai died while playing polo at Cirencester. Bubbles became the new Maharajah and Ayesha became Rajmata, or "Queen Mother". Although still mourning Jai, she sought re-election on 1971 and won again. Indira Gandhi, by now Prime Minister, and unsettled by her popularity - and opposition - called Ayesha "a glass doll". She would soon wreak her revenge. Four years later, during Mrs Gandhi's infamous Emergency, Ayesha was arrested at Moti Doongri, her fort above Jaipur, for flimsy currency offences (tax inspectors had found £19, 10 Swiss francs and some foreign coins on her dressing table). The Rajmata spent 156 days, without charge, in Delhi's Tihar Jail, Asia's largest prison, becoming not just a martyr for the raj but a symbol of democracy. Bubbles was also briefly jailed as was another MP, Rajmata Gwalior. Ayesha listened to the BBC on a smuggled radio, read books from the library and censored newspapers, and played badminton with prostitutes and pickpockets. To the delight of her fellow prisoners, she would pour French perfume into the sewer that flowed passed her cell. An English friend sent her caviar and she kept the empty jar for the rest of her life. Eventually the necessity for a gall-bladder operation led to her release. Years later she recalled, "It wasn't too bad. In Tihar, I had my own bedroom with a verandah and my own bathroom. We were well looked after, except we were not free." After this experience, Ayesha retired from politics, although she would occasionally re-enter the fray. As recently as last year she sat silently with a group of slum dwellers as they protested about the encroaching sprawl of new Jaipur on green space and heritage areas. In 1976, she wrote her memoirs A Princess Remembers, with the author Santha Rama Rau, and moved into Lilypool, an open, light-filled two-storey kothi in a beautiful garden behind the ramparts of the Rambagh Palace. For the rest of her life she divided her time between London and Jaipur. Her only child, Jagat, who was given one of his grandfather's titles, Raja of Isarda, succumbed to the family curse like two of his mother's uncles, her father and brother, and died in 1997 at the age of 46. His brief marriage to a member of the Thai royal family, Princess Priya, produced a son and daughter but soon broke down and she took the children to live in Thailand. Relations with Bubbles were strained, especially when, contrary to tradition, he named his daughter's son as his heir. Yet Ayesha remained close to Jo Didi's sons and their children. A few years ago, there was an historic meeting between two celebrated beauties, when Ayesha had the actress Aishwarya Rai to tea in London to discuss with film-maker, JP Dutta, the possibility of a film of the Rajmata's life. It was an occasion for unqualified mutual admiration. As Rai was anointed by the Rajmata, she rejoiced, "I can't believe I'll be playing one of the most beautiful women in the world! To get to enact Gayatri Devi, and that too in a film by a director of JP Dutta's film? Wait; let me pinch myself." The film foundered due to lack of funding but an awakened interest in Ayesha's life has given Dutta confidence to resume his project. Meanwhile, Dev Anand is considering making a film of her life. "However, for me to do that I would have to find a perfect replica of hers which would be a difficult task." Although in her last years - still a dream in saris and pearls, with striking snow-white hair - she was somewhat frail but mentally alert, and would cross the Rambagh gardens on the arms of two retainers. The image was reminiscent of an earlier Maharajah, Madho Singh II, who had nine wives, 7,000 concubines and 107 children (none of them legitimate). On festive occasions he too had to be held up by two men but it was because of the weight of the bangles and bracelets that hung from shoulder to waist, a necklace of rubies, sapphires and blue diamonds and a crown of emeralds and pearls. Those days were well gone. As Ayesha put it, "The only royal family we have in India is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty". She saw the loss of privilege as "inevitable and one had to accept them gracefully along with time" and summed up her life: "I have been fortunate in living the kind of life that I have." That kind of life is - like that kind of royal - now consigned to history.