Enduring Enigmas: Maharani Gayatri Devi

"In one lifetime, Gayatri Devi lived many, often contrasting, lives."

In what I hope will be a series of articles, I will present to you the lives and times of enigmatic, powerful Indian women who have held prominent positions in business, politics, government or other spheres of public life. My only criterion in choosing these women is to write about individuals who wielded command and shaped their own and future times, and were, above all, driven people whose lives remain worth remembering, long after they themselves have moved onto wherever souls go after death.

I knew that Gayatri Devi was known as one of the world’s most beautiful women in her time. I was also aware that today, she is relatively well-known as the founder of the first modern all-girls day school in Jaipur. She is, however, scarcely remembered for her contribution to public life, and for her role as one of the few women to contest and be elected to the Indian parliament in 1962, that too not from the Congress party. Moreover, outside of perhaps the coterie of Jaipur royal family loyalists, she is hardly remembered as one of the few to have publicly stood up to Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and to have been jailed for it.

These last two bits of information I acquired when I chanced upon her memoir during the initial Covid-19 related lockdowns. In the profile I attempt here, I shall present a portrait of this remarkable woman, who was so much more than the glamour of her world-renowned chiffons, pearls and palaces.

The many paradoxes that Maharani Gayatri Devi inhabited during her lifetime intrigued me. A wealthy feudal queen who contested and won parliamentary elections, a titular maharani imprisoned for standing up to the dictatorial tendencies of a democratically elected leader, a Rajput (by marriage) who lived a full social, professional and personal life outside the purdah, and an educated modern woman who shared her husband with two other wives that preceded her while spending an entire life upholding centuries-old traditions, customs and even advocating for an old-world way of life. In one lifetime, Gayatri Devi lived many, often contrasting, lives.

Before she became the Maharani or Rajmata of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi was a princess from Cooch Behar, an erstwhile kingdom at the foot of the Himalayas. One among five siblings, Gayatri Devi was tutored at home, holidayed in Europe, shot her first panther during shikar at the age of 12, and was an avid equestrian and aficionado of classic cars, clothes and jewels from a young age. Then, her marriage brought her further into the light.

Becoming the Third Maharani of Jaipur

The Maharaja of Jaipur, Man Singh II, was an honoured guest of her mother’s and a friend to her two brothers. At the family gatherings the Maharaja frequented, Gayatri Devi got to know him and thus, during one of her longer stays in Europe, their courtship began. At the time, Man Singh, eight years her senior, had already married twice and fathered four children. Gayatri Devi remembers in her memoirs, her mother’s disapproval of the marriage on grounds that Gayatri Devi ‘would just be a fixture in the Jaipur nursery’.

Adamant, Gayatri Devi and Man Singh married with the blessing of both their families (or rather, of her family, since the Maharaja did not require anyone’s approval) right before the Second World War began. Gayatri Devi writes in detail of the dynamics in the royal household; of how there were no feelings of jealousy or enmity between her and the other maharanis, each of whom was secure in their roles in the hierarchy of the zenana. Although the third maharani, Gayatri Devi wielded considerable influence in her new family almost immediately. Not only was she her husband’s hostess and equal partner in public roles and responsibilities, but from early on in her marriage, she had also assumed control of his entire household and finances.

Gayatri Devi says that one of the reasons her husband was keen to marry her was her ‘modern’ upbringing that made her stand out among other princesses of the time. Perhaps her beauty and their interpersonal chemistry helped too. Gayatri Devi had studied at Glendower Preparatory School in London, at the Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan under Rabindranath Tagore himself, at a boarding school in Switzerland, had learned how to write official correspondence, and maintain accounts at the London School of Secretaries. She was her husband’s scribe in most of his official correspondence and claims to have halved the money required to run their vast household during World War II when items had to be rationed. She did all this while still in her early twenties. She attracted the awe of the locals and the palace staff — the maharani who did not cover her face, who rode horses every morning, drove around town, and prowled her husband’s vast estates as its manager.

The Maharani as a Political Figure

Remembering a newly independent and democratised India in her memoir, Gayatri Devi laments the breakdown of their ‘old way of life’, and writes—with a considerable bias of course —of how the new system of democracy distanced the governed from those who govern. She also writes about the diminishing desire for aesthetics and a sense of history and culture, and about how the former well-planned city of Jaipur was allowed to grow and expand at a reckless pace with no thought for municipal planning and layout.

The Maharani’s tryst with politics started perhaps when she wrote to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru urging him to direct his state government to stop its war on historical buildings and structures. The letter was acknowledged and acted upon. This encouraged Gayatri Devi, who felt compelled to do more for her people. But the unfavourable sentiment towards the Congress Party persisted. As it happens, the party had approached Gayatri Devi’s husband before the first general elections in 1952, offering him a ticket to contest elections from the constituency formed from his former kingdom. Man Singh had declined, a decision that Gayatri Devi believed avoided the show of partisanship and therefore reflected considerable good sense. The Congress party then pursued the former queen herself who, after the untimely demise of the first two maharanis, remained the last Maharani of Jaipur and hence stepping up to fill the personal lacuna in the lives of the Maharaj and his other children, and in the larger customary and public roles occupied by the other two ladies—a lot more than a fixture of the Jaipur nursery that her mother had feared she would be.

The Indian National Congress did not interest Maharani Gayatri Devi. She writes with contempt of the workings of this party that replaced her husband as the power of the land and derides them as a group of corrupt and nepotistic individuals. On these grounds, she declined their invitation to contest elections on their ticket. But upon encouragement from her husband, she felt inclined to join the Swatantra Party led by the dignified C. Rajagopalachari. She believed him to be a capable and astute leader and this, rather than any particular policy of the Swatantra Party, contributed to her reasons for joining the party. Maybe an undertone of anger and justified irritation influenced her bias against the Congress? Regardless of her reasons, I believe it was still remarkable of her to choose a less popular party and recognise the importance of a strong opposition in the country.

A Challenging Parliamentarian

In her very first election, Maharani Gayatri Devi set a Guinness Book world record as a candidate elected with the most votes ever in any democracy up until that point for her electoral victory in 1962. Two famous, or infamous, instances from her life as a Parliamentarian are recounted in detail in her memoir. Relatively early in her political career, Gayatri Devi gained fame for lashing out at Prime Minister Nehru over the Sino-Indian war. ‘If you knew anything about anything, we would not be in this predicament,” she said to a harrowed Nehru. Though later she was to express regret for her unkind words, the incident made her rather famous. In today’s raucous and cacophonous parliament, her remarks would have been considered lukewarm at best.

A decade later, during the emergency inflicted on the country by Indira Gandhi, Gayatri Devi was imprisoned for five months on the charges of holding undeclared wealth. In Tihar Jail, where she was incarcerated for some time, she shared a cell with the then Rajmata of Gwalior, Maharani Vijayraje Scindia. In her memoirs, she remembers that her imprisonment was due to her facing the wrath of a deluded Indira Gandhi whose sycophants had poisoned the premiere against the Maharani on the grounds of Gayatri Devi’s long-standing and vocal opposition to the Congress, and her popularity abroad and in India.

Reeling from Recurring Losses

After a point, however, Gayatri Devi had had enough of her political career. The death of her mother, sister, of her beloved brother and her husband within a few months of each other in 1970 had plunged her into deep grief that laced the remainder of her life, and the entirety of her memoir. She regrets spending time away from her husband during his ambassadorship in Spain and her parliamentary duties in India. She also shares that with her husband gone, she lost a guiding light and her pillar of support, and felt at the mercy of ill-wishers in politics. She lamented much later in her life that she made the mistake of confusing political office as the only way of doing something for her country and its people.

Gayatri Devi arguably became the face of an old-world, glamorous, rich India to people within the country and abroad. Even her death in 2009 caused much stir worldwide, as the last link to a bygone era was severed. A woman who lived her life in unimaginable wealth and with access to so much power and so many powerful individuals, in turn, wielded considerable influence in various spheres of her life. An outsider to Rajput customs and cultures, she adopted her husband’s ways and even took her adopted brethren into a new era with her ways and deeds.

She also writes about how her mother reminded her a few years into her marriage, that she was lucky to have a husband who was not jealous of her, who did not try to control what she did or what she aspired to be, and who went out of his way to encourage her. This reminds me of the advice Sheryl Sandberg, the CFO of Facebook, gives to young female graduates in her book Lean In—choose your life partners carefully, for that will also powerfully impact the tone of your careers. It also made me wonder how many women in heterosexual marriages throughout history had had their potential stifled because they were passed on like cattle from their maternal family to their husband’s—like objects or properties rather than thinking, doing, wanting individuals. By default, women are expected to make their careers and professional lives secondary to the needs and wants of their husbands’ and husband’s families. Regardless of whether or not a woman primarily fits into the role of a caregiver without economic independence, she is more often than that pushed into it. To have a life outside of that mold then would require extraordinary life partners who support and nurture the professional growth and aspirations of a woman along with her. Gayatri Devi iterates many times in her memoir, that she was indeed lucky to have a supportive husband, as pointed out by her mother.

On another note, the Maharani’s first electoral victory also lays bare the tendency of Indian voters to honour dynasties and vote for familiar faces and names, pointing to star power and its ability to overshadow candidates’ actual ability and willingness to make a change on the ground. I could not find any parliamentary records that gave me information about her attendance, participation, speeches, voting pattern or other contributions and works as a member of parliament. A crucial aspect of her life and contribution to society, therefore, remains unanalysed.

Despite everything that is remembered of her, it is worth appreciating that instead of letting her wealth, privilege and power shackle her to an unremarkable life of comfort, Maharani Gayatri Devi stepped out and did something with all that was given to her. In a country made up of over five hundred former princely kingdoms, she could have easily been relegated to a niche, regional memory. Surely, she deserves more.