With the passing away of Maharani Gayatri Devi, a unique chapter in India’s history and culture closes. For long after Independence, her beauty and grace embodied the finest aspects of India to the world. On the one hand, she symbolised the old-world regality of maharajas and maharanis. On the other, she was a genuine internationalist, totally cosmopolitan in outlook. Not many know that Gayatri Devi was a superb conversationalist. She travelled widely, and at one point had visited almost every country in the world.
We were extremely fortunate to get the chance to do a book on her. Right through the process of the book, she gave us full access to photographs and manuscripts that delved into her life and family’s past. Indeed, our company, Roli, is extremely lucky to get a signed photograph of hers, which is now part of our heirloom.
On many an occasion, we would invite her to launch a book that we thought was appropriate for her. For a person of such eminence, it was pleasantly surprising how easily she would comply. This, from someone known to be steadfast about her privacy.
She knew she was very beautiful. She loved to be photographed. Along with the obvious beauty, came an unmatched flourish and polish. It was there in the way she spoke and conducted herself. In a tradition-bound set-up, she took part in religious ceremonies, played tennis with male partners, went swimming and horse riding, and did not miss a single season of polo. She also took it upon herself to bring the women of Rajasthan out of purdah. Vogue voted her as one of the ten most beautiful women in the world.
However, for all her world-renowned beauty, people forget the things she did in her life. Here was a woman, who ran for Parliament in 1962 and won a landslide victory in an election. She ran against Indira Gandhi in 1967 and 1971. It irked Indira Gandhi so much she abolished privy purses and royal privileges in 1971.
Later, Gayatri Devi was accused of tax evasion and breaking laws. She even served five months in Tihar during the Emergency. She retired from politics after that, but described her experiences in her autobiography, A Princess Remembers.
In later life, she turned a great patron of the arts. Take a look at Jaipur today, and you will find how local Rajasthani art has taken off. A good hand behind it was Gayatri Devi’s. She also established two well-known schools there—Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls School and Sawai Man Singh Vidhyalaya. She was in every sense, a true ambassador of India to the world.
Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books published the Family Pride Series: Gayatri Devi
As told to Rahul Jayaram