There are princesses, and then there’s Her Highness Maharani Gayatri Devi, Rajmata of Jaipur, one of the most glamorous, exotic and formidable icons of the last century. A Maharani, a politician, a legendary beauty and a fashion icon, hers was a life of many layers, each one lived amidst the changing tides of the most tumultuous decade in India’s history. As celebrants of women who forge their own distinct path, hers is a life well worth looking at for so many reasons.
The Rajmata Gayatri Devi was never going to live an ordinary life. Born in 1919, she was the daughter of the Prince and Princess of Cooch Behar, a state in eastern India. Known as Ayesha, she was a tomboy – rumor has it she shot her first panther aged 12. She first met her husband before she was even a teenager. The then 21-year-old Maharajah of Jaipur was the country’s most glamorous man, the handsome Prince of Rajasthan’s magical pink city and a famously good polo player. Later, whilst she was at finishing school in London, they became secretly engaged, much to the consternation of both sides’ relatives. He already had two wives, both married for reasons of state, and her family was concerned that the independently minded Princess would be stifled by life in a much more traditional royal household as his third consort. Theirs was a love match, however, and they married in 1940 nonetheless. Together, they ruled Jaipur until it was acceded into the new Dominion of India after independence. In 1970, her husband died suddenly in England and Ayesha became Rajmata, the Queen Mother of her city.
Maharani Gayatri Devi a polo player herself encourages the game
Gayatri Devi in her office after joining C Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party in the 1960s
But Ayesha Jaipur was much more than a consort. She played tennis, drove her own car, rode horses and joined in polo games at a time when royal women were supposed to keep purdah, a custom of segregation, all the while nudging her country towards change as she went. She opened a famous school for girls. She entered politics, winning a seat in India’s parliament in 1962 with what was then the biggest landslide victory ever recorded. Later on, during the political upheaval of Indira Gandhi’s notorious State of Emergency she would be imprisoned for six months.
Gayatri Devi at Rambagh Palace
Gayatri Devi pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1940
Maharani Gayatri Devi with Jacqueline Kennedy in 1962
And all of this took place against a backdrop of impeccable style. Encapsulating a time when all of India’s lavish regal traditions and exoticism blended with the jet set allure of the Hollywood era to bring about one of the most glamorous times in history, Ayesha’s reign was legendary. Named one of the world’s most beautiful women by Vogue, who cited her ‘a dream in saris and jewels,’ she was a vision whether clad in her bright chiffon saris or immaculately cut jodhpurs. The couple’s principle residence was the Rambagh Palace, a cream, sprawling confection of Mughal and Rajput architecture set in majestic gardens on the outskirts of the city. It was there that Cecil Beaton famously photographed the young Maharani in 1943, and there that she entertained everyone from the Queen to Jackie Kennedy. Visitors would find elephants in the gardens and custom Rolls Royce’s on the driveway.
In her memoir, A Princess Remembers, she recorded, “When the Maharaja first took me to our residence at the Rambagh Palace, I was enchanted. There was a high-ceilinged, airy bedroom all in pink with pale voile curtains, pastel divans and chaises lounges. A large sitting room was filled with objet’s d’art from the Jaipur collection. Small jeweled animals, rose quartz and jade, and curved daggers with white jade hilts and jewels were displayed in glass cabinets. Jade boxes were encrusted with semi-precious stones in floral designs, and heavy crystal bowls were filled with flowers. My maids helped me change quickly into Rajasthani costume in auspicious reds, pinks and oranges, and to put on more jewelry, never forgetting the dozens of ivory bangles.”
However rarefied her life, however, Ayesha was not precious. Her approach was natural, and more than a little tongue in cheek. Once, when asked of her beauty secrets, she replied, “Tell them I drink a bottle of whiskey a day, and I dye my hair black with boot polish.” It is this casual approach to glamour, and its blend with a game changing approach to life that we at Kotur so admire. As champions of women who stand out from the crowd, she is impossible not to revere. She died aged 90 in 2009. The most glamorous Princess of her era, she has become the stuff of legend, a beacon of glamour who strove for modernity in extraordinary time gone by.
Photo Courtesy of Cecil Beaton, c. 1943, telegraph, pinterest, dailymail, wmagazine