Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

A royal tale

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John Zubrzycki’s new book on Rajmata Gayatri Devi and Jaipur’s royal house is more twisted than the secret passageways behind Hawa Mahal’s lacy facade. 

Book Review, India Today, August 22-31, 2020

When she died at the ripe old age of 90 in 2009, Gayatri Devi, the Rajmata of Jaipur, the city to which she had come as an awestruck bride 70 years earlier came to a standstill. Amid showers of rose petals, cries of “Maharani ki jai!”, a 40-gun salute and the panoply of a state funeral, thousands of mourners thronged the Pink City. Newspapers around the world ran fulsome tributes. Neither Rajput-born nor fluent in Hindi, an audacious rule-breaker, why did she triumph in a kingdom that had barely changed since medieval times?

Hers is the image, as style-maker, royal jetsetter and most glamorous of MPs flung into jail by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, that captures the precarious transition from India’s princely Jazz Age to the upheavals of modern democracy. A hand-tinted portrait adorns the cover of John Zubrzycki’s book, The House of Jaipur, but inside is a sobering 20th century saga more twisted than the secret passageways behind Hawa Mahal’s lacy façade.

In her bestselling 1977 memoir A Princess Remembers, the Rajmata told a rose-tinted tale of the teenage passion that propelled her from Cooch Behar’s royal household to Rambagh Palace as the third wife of the handsome polo-playing Maharaja of Jaipur. (Already a father of four, his two previous wives were sequestered in Rambagh’s purdah wing.)

Together, Jai and Ayesha (as their friends knew them) turned Jaipur into a modernising project: appointing reformist administrators, starting girls’ schools, negotiating political settlements and, presciently, converting their palaces into grand hotels. As party people, their social cachet was considerable. It irritated officialdom no end that the Queen and Prince Philip, the Mountbattens and Jackie Kennedy (and later Imran Khan and Mick Jagger) bore down on Jaipur for their company. In 1966, they were the only Indians invited to Truman Capote’s iconic Black and White Ball. Ignoring the dress code, Ayesha arrived in a gold sari and blaze of emeralds.

Yet they remained anachronisms of their age. Asked how she dealt with her husband’s senior wives and adulteries, the Rajmata said, “I think it’s much easier to get on with your husband’s other wife who has an official status than his mistress who is usurping you.”

By removing layers of “airbrushed inconvenient truths” from her sanitised memoir, Zubrzycki’s assiduously-researched, gripping account is of a troubled family wrecked by alcoholism, avarice and labyrinthine litigation among brothers and heirs. Ayesha’s father and two adored brothers perished from drink. So did Jai’s only daughter and his neglected purdah wives. Most tragically, their only biological son Jagat, divorced from his wife, a Thai princess, and estranged from his children, died in London after a reckless binge in 1997.

Claims of primogeniture by Jai’s eldest son Bhawani Singh led to a landslide of lawsuits. Though the Rajmata anonymously left some of her best Cartier pieces to the British Museum, her grandchildren enforced their rights of inheritance to her property.

The fight in the courts failed to dim the razzmatazz of Jaipur’s old court. Bhawani died in 2011, leaving a new rajmata in City Palace. His daughter Diya Kumari is now a BJP MP. And his grandson, 22-year-old Padmanabh Singh, is the new maharaja. He plays polo in England, waltzes Reese Witherspoon’s daughter at debutante balls in Paris, and walks the runway for Dolce & Gabbana in Milan. Brand Jaipur, a creation of Ayesha and Jai’s, marches on.



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