23 May 1919: Gayatri Devi, wife of Sawai Man Singh II, was born
“I consider the Maharani of Jaipur [Gayatri Devi] one of the most beautiful women of this century for her looks, her presence, the way she carries herself and the clothes she wears. In the latter part of her life, she has done a lot for Jaipur in setting up institutions of education and improving the lot of women.”
Gayatri Devi embodies one of the finest royalties in India. An Indian princess, then a queen, and then the Rajmata, Gayatri Devi’s life combines the glamour, adventure, and tryst of royal living. She is renowned for her “unparalleled beauty” and courage in taking difficult decisions. She has been the subject of various literary works, like Rajmata Gayatri Devi, by Dharmendar Kanwar, Gourmet's Gateway: A Royal Collection, a cook book by the same author, and Maharanis by Lucy Moor. She also wrote about her life in her autobiography, A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur.
Gayatri Devi was born in the royal family of Cooch Behar to Maharaja Jitendra Narayan and Maharani Indira Devi, on 23 May 1919. According to her memoir, she had a “carefree tomboy childhood,” during which she learnt horse riding and went on “adventurous trips” with her mother and siblings to various European destinations. She also went hunting with her father. She is said to have “shot her first panther before she turned thirteen. Gayatri Devi pursued her education in London, Shantiniketan, and Lausanne in Switzerland. She is believed to have learned a number of languages.
Ayesha and Jai, The road to becoming the Maharani of Jaipur, started when Gayatri Devi was just a teenager. Contrary to the traditions in the early days, when girls had arranged marriages, Ayesha, as she was lovingly called, fell head-over-heels in love with a handsome polo player, Jai. He was the Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh II, and was already married twice, both arranged. The couple in love had a rather clandestine affair for almost six years, after which they got engaged and married in 1939, when Ayesha was 20 years of age.
After their marriage, Ayesha arrived in Jaipur, where she found herself in a very conservative environment, where women would confine themselves inside the City Palace. The new maharani chose to live in the Rambagh Palace, and filled her days with outdoor activities like horse riding and hunting, and throwing lavish parties. Maharani Gayatri Devi was well-known in the social circles as an elegant woman adorned in “delicate French Chiffon saris, classy pearl necklaces, regal blue diamonds and trendy hairstyles.” Her fashion sense and beauty earned her the title of one of the ten most beautiful women in the world by the Vogue magazine. Her photographs are a testament to the fact that she was quite a stunner at a young age, and even as she grew old.
In 1949, Ayesha and Jai had a son, whom they named Jagat Singh. Ayesha is believed to be a good mother to her son. She later earned the title of Rajmata or Queen Mother for her motherly ways not only for her son but also for her grandchildren and subjects.
Public and Political Life:-
In addition to being a fun-loving extravagant royal, Gayatri Devi was well aware of her responsibilities towards her subjects. Some of the significant things she did were, encouraging the art of blue pottery, funding health treatments for those who could not afford it, and promoting girl education by establishing exclusive Girl Schools in Jaipur. The Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ Public School, which she founded in 1943, is one of the top all girls’ schools in the city, today.
As India gained independence in 1947, the kings and queens of princely states of the country lost more than just their titles. The Maharaja and Maharani of Jaipur were reduced to being commoners, according to the laws of the newly formed nation. Despite making several changes in their lifestyle, Gayatri Devi’s sophistication and glamour remained intact. She was also one of the very few royals who took to the changes in her stride and rose above it. In 1972, she sold a major share of her Rambagh Palace to the Taj Group of Hotels. Rambagh Palace Hotel soon became one of the best luxury hotels in the city, and Rajmata Gayatri Devi was among the board members.
Gayatri Devi joined politics, soon after independence, and was vociferous about several decisions taken by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Her political claim to fame came in 1962, when she won the Jaipur parliamentary seat by the highest percentage of votes ever registered by any candidate in history, which is a Guinness World Record. In spite of achieving such an immense majority, Gayatri Devi was always in the opposition. One of the highlights of her political career was, when she was jailed for five months during the time of the Emergency (1975) declared by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Thereafter, Gayatri Devi left active politics and concentrated on her charities, school administration, and other social work.
In conclusion, Gayatri Devi’s entire life is seen as that of a fairy tale, where she is not only celebrated for her beauty, she also married the one she loved, and later in her life showed extraordinary strength in facing difficult situations. On her death bed she had the company of her grandchildren. Gayatri Devi took her last breath on 29 July 2009, in the Santokba Durlabhji Memorial Hospital in Jaipur.
Gayatri Devi, 1919-2009, by Sandeep Dougal, for Outlook India, July 2009.
Gayatri Devi, the last of the maharanis, by Raja Murthy, for Asia Times, August 2009.