INDIA'S MODISH MAHARANI SURVIVES EVEN ARMED ROBBERY IN STYLE
February 24, 1975
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark/Lee Gross
Gayatri Devi, former maharani of Jaipur, looks wistfully around the City Palace, once her family's and now a museum.
When the handsome, exotic woman at left was visiting Manhattan last year she was robbed at gunpoint ‑and on elegant Sutton Place at that.
How street crime measures up in excitement with tiger hunts, polo matches and incalculable wealth will be told in her autobiography, the life of Maharani Gayatri Devi, due out this fall. These days, having put her reminiscences on tape for polishing by Indian author Santha Rama Rau, the maharani, 55, has returned to a life that many outsiders believe has utterly disappeared in modern India ‑but which by any standard is a pale imitation of how things once were.
As she strolls through the red sandstone courtyard of the City Palace, in the fabled rose‑pink city of Jaipur, the maharani (which means princess) can luxuriate in memories. This palace was once her home, centerpiece of a life of prodigious extravagance. Along with her late husband, Sir Sawai Mansinghji Bahadur, 39th maharaja or prince, she reigned over 16,000 square miles and two million subjects in the state of Jaipur, from their marriage in 1940 through 1948. Her life story, in a nation where the familiar images are famine, drought and mass deprivation, will probably read like Notes from Never‑Never Land. The dashing maharaja, an internationally acclaimed polo player, and the maharani, herself of royal blood and European education, entertained Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. They hosted the Beautiful People of the day at their palaces throughout India, vacationed on three continents and kept stables of polo ponies, expensive cars and elephants ‑for that thrilling privilege of elitist leisure, the tiger hunt. Family retainers recall the arrival of multitudes of guests and the pitching of tents on the soft lawns of the Jaipur palaces, each laid with Persia's finest carpets and stocked with chilled champagne. Like all of royal blood, the prince and princess, or Jai and Ayesha, as they were known, were believed descended from the moon and sun.
The rajmata ‑or queen mother, as she is sometimes called‑ tries out her Jaguar, all that remains of a fleet of elegant cars.
Their celestial idyll was shattered in 1947 by Indian independence. Over the next two years, the new democratic government abolished the more than 500 princely states and stripped all royal families of their power and much of their property, compensating each with an income proportionate to the family's wealth. The maharani and maharaja received an annual purse of $240,000 until legislation ended even that in 1971. But the Jaipur family, unlike many others, have long been shrewd investors and are millionaires in many currencies. Perhaps more painful for the family than loss of land and power was the government's assault upon their pride: in 1956, the beloved Rambagh Palace, one of their homes, was converted into a luxury hotel for tourists.
Shortly thereafter, the maharani put aside her blood ties to the heavens and decided to defend her dwindling royal perquisites by running for a seat in parliament. A strain of social consciousness did not hurt her campaign: the maharani was always well liked by her subjects and, in fact, was once known as the Mad Princess for the solicitous way she looked after her servants. Directing her attention to the plight of the poor ‑while keeping an eye on the interests of the deposed royal families‑ she won the largest plurality in Indian election history in 1961, humbling 10 other contestants for the seat. Since then she has been a fixture on the opposition bench in parliament, bringing the elegance of matched pearls and French perfume to a house where members ritually rough it in crude homespun.
To retain her lithe body, the 55‑year‑old Gayatri practices yoga on her terrace as her swami ‑or teacher‑ looks on.
Clearly frustrated by the complexities of democratic bureaucracy in a nation of over 500 million, she recently complained: "I sometimes think politics is not the way to improve the lot of the masses. I might be able to do more for them if instead of buying a new sari, I gave them the money."
When not at parliament the widowed maharani, whose husband died of a heart attack in 1970 during a polo match, devotes herself to the City Palace. The state converted it into a museum which now houses Jaipur art treasures. Since her tiger‑hunting days, which began at the age of 12 (in all she bagged more than two dozen), she has become an ardent conservationist and works actively with the World Wildlife Fund. Overseeing the family fortune is no longer the demanding task it once was. "We sold off the planes, the ponies and the elephants," she notes with sorrow.
Walking through Jaipur during a weekend visit from parliament In Delhi, Gayatri is surrounded by adoring townspeople.
Among the cars also sold were two Rolls‑Royces, which Gayatri Devi regrets. "I wish we had kept them for the museum, to go along with the elephant chariot." Her white '49 Jaguar, a gift from her husband after she admired one in France, remains a prize memento of the former grandeur. Gayatri drives very little now, however, content to be chauffeured unnoticed through Jaipur in a Fiat Millecento.
Whatever her circumstances, the maharani remains an intriguing and graceful woman, exuding style, whether spontaneously lunching on green peppers and villagers' unleavened bread, called chapatis, or playing political hostess in one of her many chiffon saris. Clearly, as she showed after the robbery, the royal blood courses on within her. Shaken but unhurt, she exclaimed with just the right touch of hauteur, "Where else could I have had such a fantastic experience for the cost of just a pearl necklace?"
An avid sportswoman who plays tennis and swims, the rajmata acts as hostess to the West Indian cricket team.