This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Gayatri Devi was the daughter of the maharani of Cooch-Behar, a fabled beauty of her time and was brought up in luxury all over India and in London. At an early age, she became besotted with Sawai Man Singh, the reigning maharaja of Jaipur, a world-class polo player and her mother’s one-time suitor.
Despite the vast gap in their ages and the fact that the maharaja already had two wives and several children at home, she insisted on marrying him over the advice of many relatives.
It was to prove to be a wise decision. Shortly after she moved to Jaipur, the maharaja’s other wives retreated into the background and she soon found international fame as one of the world’s most beautiful royals.
Jai and Ayesha, as the couple were called, became global jet-setters, socializing with European royalty and becoming regular fixtures in the society pages of British and American magazines. In no time at all, the Jaipurs were the most famous Indian royals across the world.
Their fame hardly diminished after independence, though Gayatri Devi’s impatience with socialism saw her become a follower of C Rajagopalachari and one of the leading lights of his Swatantra Party. Despite her husband’s reservations, Gayatri Devi stood for election from Jaipur on a Swatantra ticket and won by one of the largest margins in Indian history.
Sawai Man Singh died while playing polo and his son Colonel Bhawani Singh (Bubbles) took over as maharaja and his wife Padmini as maharani. Gayatri Devi became the rajmata but continued to play a major role in Rajasthan politics.
It was probably this political prominence that led Indira Gandhi to imprison her for several months during the Emergency. The transition from palace to prison cannot have been easy but the rajmata coped with style and gumption.
By the end of the Seventies however, her political ambitions faded and she concentrated on the things she really cared about: the girls’ school founded in her name in Jaipur, the stud farm where she indulged her love for horses and various social service activities in and around Jaipur.
Even though the era of the global jet-set was ending, she continued to spend several months of the year in London, her international fame at an all-time high after the publication of her best-selling autobiography, A Princess Remembers.
Despite the book’s global success, Gayatri Devi never really liked it. I interviewed her in 1977 when it had just been published and she complained bitterly about the mistakes that her ghost writer Santha Rama Rau had made.
Later in the 1980s, she asked if I could write an article advising people not to buy the book because she had a problem with an Indian edition for which she was paid insufficient royalties. “I keep telling the bookshop at the Rambagh not to stock it,” she said, “but they just don’t listen.”
In her later years, she lived in cheerful retirement in Lily Pool, her small house on the grounds of the Rambagh Palace (which had once been her home). Unusually for somebody who had seen such fame, she kept scrapbooks in which she pasted every news item that had ever appeared about her.
I remember sitting once at the Lalique crystal dining table (one of only two in the world, she told me) looking through the scrapbooks and listening to her stories of days gone by. (“Of course we knew Merle Oberon was an Anglo Indian. It was hardly a secret. But one never pointed these things out. It would be so rude…”)
Periodically she would emerge from Lily Pool, and fly off to London, Calcutta or Delhi. Or she would simply head to the Polo Bar at the Rambagh and order her favourite champagne.
That, I think, will be my lasting image of her: a woman who had seen it all, done it all but had kept her dignity, her poise and her head, knowing that at the end of the day, all that was important was that you could sit back and think about a remarkable life without regrets and with the champagne still fizzing.