Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Meeting Gayatri Devi

I was so sad to hear of the death last week of the legendary Rajmata Gayatri Devi, the former Maharani of Jaipur. She died at the age of 90 in Jaipur, the city she loved. Vogue had once described her as ‘a dream in a sari and jewels’ and she pioneered education for girls. I was fortunate to spend time with her whenever I have been in India. Come with me to meet an extraordinary, vibrant woman.

“The Rajmata would like you to meet her at Lily Pool at 11 oclock tomorrow morning,” reported the concierge at the Rambagh Palace.

Great. We were going to discuss schools she had founded in Jaipur, and in particular the newest, a co-educational grade school on the outskirts of Jaipur, called Lalitya Kumari Bal Niketan after her granddaughter. Many of the students at this school are the children of day laborers and goatherds, and live in Jaggon Ki Bowri, a small rural town without electricity or running water.

I’d started The Pencil Project to send and give pens and pencils to rural schools in Rajasthan. With the help of many architects and designers in San Francisco, and especially my friend Suzanna Allen, we had put many pens and pencils into the hands of students and teachers.

At 11 precisely I walked from the Rambagh Palace, through the arched gate, and past tennis courts, into the Lily Pool gardens. When I arrived at the entrance, her turbaned secretary greeted me.

“The Rajmata has not returned from Mooti Doongri,” he said. “Please come and she will be here soon.”

I sat in the sunny cream-walled living room and watched squirrels and chipmunks playing in the elaborate embroidered curtains that had become a little ripped over the years. Birds flew in an out. In the garden, peacocks screeched in the trees.

The houseman returned with a glass of lemonade (with two slivers of ice-cubes—the Rajmata was known to be frugal).

Time passed and the Rajmata had not returned from her morning puja (prayers). Well, royal privilege and all that. I could not resist the temptation to glance into her dining room, with its long Art Deco mirrored table.

There was no evidence of her jewelry collection. She was a great fan and patron of the famous Gem Palace, owned by the illustrious Kasliwal family, and I would often see her there around 5pm, usually with visiting international VIPs she would encourage to purchase jewels.

Even when I was not in India, I would encounter her at John Sandoe Books just off the Kings Road in London.

In the evening, I used to see her walking in the garden of the Rambagh Palace with her graceful sister, Menaka. In their turquoise or shocking pink or citron saris, the two like exotic birds walking on the lawn. Occasionally, years ago, she would send over a typewritten invitation to dinner at Lily Pool.

Suddenly, in a rustle of chiffon, the Rajmata arrived from her devotions. We chatted about her schools, until her houseman appeared carrying an ivory rotary-dial telephone.

“Hello, Dickie,” said the Rajmata in her regal intonation. “I was calling to see if your parcel arrived in London? Oh, you have not received it? Oh, dear. What’s in it, you said? No, Dickie, it’s not diamonds.”

She said her goodbyes.

She arranged for me to visit the new school. The students, most of whom spoke English, had no desks or chairs. In fact, they had no equipment. An unplugged computer monitor stood on a shelf. The students used their book bags to support their school notebooks.

And yet. Each student was beautifully groomed, with neat hair. The older girls, the thirteen- and –fourteen-year-olds who would later go on to teachers’ training college, wore spotless white dresses. I walked into a classroom of twelve-year-olds, and saw on the blackboard that they were studying velocity.

After giving pens to the teachers and pencils to students, I asked my driver to accompany me into the village where the students lived.

Walking down a dusty track, I reached the small village. Women in bright-colored saris were drawing water at the town well, and carrying it back to their mud houses in metal urns. Beyond, women were leading herds of bleating goats out to graze in the surrounding forest. Young girls were taking care of babies. It was a daily scene in rural India, and yet, just twelve miles from bustling Jaipur it was from another century.

This is where the students from Lalitya Kumari Bal Niketan lived. I planned to call friends on my return to California, to send more pencils to these schools.
“My home, the Lily Pool, is not like the palaces I once lived in. Many of the paintings, collections of jade and rose quartz and objets d’art, from my rooms at Rambagh, are now in the Lily Pool. It has a certain warmth and charm. I like it because it is so open, like living outdoors. I hate shut doors and do not mind that swallows dirty my lamp shades and chipmunks nibble the fringes of my curtains.” — Gayatri Devi, from ‘A Princess Remembers’ published by Rupa & Co New Delhi, 1995
Portrait of the Rajmata Sahiba was taken in Jaipur when she was 80.
From the Rajmata's private collection.

According to official reports, the Maharani Gayatri Devi was born in London on May 23, 1919 at eight o'clock in the morning. According to Hindu astrologers the Maharani's auspicious letter was 'G' and she was named Gayatri.

To her friends and family she was known as Ayesha. She told of shooting her first panther when she was 12, and often accompanied her family members on tiger hunts, but later gave it up ‘out of sympathy for the animals.”

In her 1995 biography, ‘A Princess Remembers’ the pages offer snatches from a shuttered life of privilege. Her grandmother told Gayatri the three etiquettes of a maharani. The most important among them was to "never wear emeralds with a green sari as I had because they look so much better with pink".

Maharani Gayatri Devi's mother was the beautiful and much admired Maharani Indira Devi. She is the daughter of the Gaekwad ruler Maharaja Sayaji Rao III and Maharani Chimnabai of Baroda. Her father is the Maharaja Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur.

But she easily went beyond her jeweled life and after Independence, the loss of officially recognized royal status. She participated in India’s burgeoning democracy. She was elected to Parliament three times with a huge majority, and served from 1962 until 1975.

Even into her eighties, she was involved in the six schools she founded in Jaipur.

“When one was young,” said the Rajmata of Jaipur, “one had one's own elephants.”
“I knew that elephants had been a measure of wealth and status among the old royal families in India,” she recalled. “My parents, the Maharaja and Maharani of Cooch Behar, had sixty. My grandfather, the Maharaja of Baroda, had ninety-nine.”
— Rajmata Gayatri Devi

Gayatri Devi and her two sisters were educated at home by English and French tutors, in the royal India tradition, as well as in Switzerland and in India. Her family had a house in Belgravia in London, where she later attended the London College of Secretaries.

She once recalled, “I learned shorthand, to type and to write decent letters.”

After six years of covert courtship, and defying family disapproval (he already had two wives) in 1940 she became the third wife of the maharajah, Sir Sawai Man Singh Bahadur, a renowned polo player. He proposed in the back seat of his Bentley as it circled Hyde Park in London.

Judging by her family album, and her biography, ‘A Princess Remembers’, written with Indian novelist Santha Rama Rau, she and the maharaja spent much of the year traveling. In summer they were in England for polo, later to New York to visit friends, to Calcutta and Delhi for family gatherings, to North India for tiger hunts, to Paris for glamorous balls, back to London for the Season, back to Jaipur to host Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill, and to host Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.

Gayatri Devi loved badminton, tennis and polo, and was an elegant and accomplished horse rider. She had great natural style in saris and jewelry, inherited from her mother, and in the forties to the sixties, was a glamorous fashion icon.

Vogue magazine once listed her among the "World's ten most Beautiful Women". According to the Indian newspaper, Hindu, last week, Gayatri Devi, was cremated with state honors in Jaipur in the presence of hundreds of thousands of weeping mourners, who included her former subjects in the erstwhile Jaipur State, her sardars in crisp white turbans, and members of the ruling families of the former Rajputana. Caparisoned elephants accompanied her coffin.

“In the evening of my life, all I can say is that I would not trade places with anyone. I hope I have been able to do something for India through the students who have been educated in the schools I founded.” —Rajmata Gayatri Devi “A Princess Remembers The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur

The Maharani arrives at the Rambagh Palace

From 'A Princess Remembers: “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 longues. 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.”

Images from a private collection, from official sources, and from ‘A Princess Remembers’.


  1. This is a fascinating profile of a truly elegant woman. Your writing is very evocative, it was easy to transport myself to that living room and wait along with you for the Rajmata to arrive. Thank you, I enjoyed it tremendously. - Norine (the molto bene wife)

  2. This is a vivid portrayl of another woman of the era when everything seemed beautiful. In many ways-she must have had to make her world that way. I love the picture you paint of Lily Pool. That last picture says it all. Fierce strength. thanks for this portrait. la

    Hello, Little Augury--always welcome!

    The Rajmata was such an inspiration--and I will miss her so much next time I'm in India. She was always a focus of any visit--and going to the schools and taking school supplies was a privilege and an honor. The former Maharani lead a life of extraordinary privilege-and she was aware of that. And she balanced it by powerfully championing girls' education in Jaipur.
    At the junior school she founded, Jaggon Ki Bowri school, when I first visited--I was shocked and saddened to discover that girls as young as 13 or even 12 were 'betrothed' and then go to live with their 'fiance's' family--thus abruptly ending the girl's education. So when a grade school can keep a 12 or 14 year old girl in school, it is a triumph. It was graphically clear to me when I first visited that although in kindergarten the girls and boys were about equal, by aged 12 or 13, there were many more boys than girls.India is a fantastic country, and in many way the standard of education and accomplishment is extremely high--but in rural areas the reality of tradition, poverty, brief life span, ill-health, and religious beliefs mean that girls' education is often not a priority. It will change slowly-but change--thanks the schools like the ones started by the Rajmata. God Bless Her.

  4. This is an amazing tribute to Maharani Gayatri Devi--- a legend in her own time. Absolutely loved reading it

  5. Thank you Diane Dorrans for the engrossing

  6. Such a marvelous remembrance of an elegant woman. "When one was young, one had one's own elephants." Oh, how I love that!

    I know John Sandoe Books well. What a treat it would have been to come across her there.

    And thanks so much for your visit to my blog, for your kind comment and for adding me to your blog roll. I shall happily do the same with yours! All the best,

  7. As Pamela Terry and Edward remarked, how great is the statement, "When one was young, one had one's own elephants"? I'm writing that one down, for sure.
    But what about the reference in the New York Times obituary to Devi's having been jailed for a period of time? Do I remember correctly? I've discarded the paper. What was the story with that?

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your memories with us. I read the UK and US obits of this fascinating woman. Now I hope to find her book to read.

  9. A fascinating look into the life of this extraordinary woman. I so enjoyed it. I'll always remember to wear my emeralds with pink! Loved that. Have added you to my bloglist. I am so delighted to discover your blog and I send you thanks.

    Thank you Rekha, for sending your comment fro Delhi! I appreciate your kind words. A Thousand, and Pigtown and Andrea--and Marie and Pamela-
    I so appreciate your thoughtful comments.
    Andrea-You are correct that the Rajmata spent about 5 months in jail. She was found guilty of tax avoidance, I believe, by 'hiding jewelry' (actually supposedly at her palace/castle at Mooti Doogri, where she used to go each morning for puja (where she went the last morning I was meeting her). I don't know any details of this case--will check as it is in her book. She went off to jail. I think she taught women to read and helped poor women to have dignity--it was her way.She always made the most of these trials--and was graceful, never complained.
    The arc of her life--from 'emeralds with pink silk' and 'one had one's own elephants' and the Hispano-Suiza cars, the many palaces and retainers and wives in purdah and the travel, the jewels, the royal attendants--then the death of her husband (who had two previous wives still alive), and then partition, end of the Raj, and in a nutshell the disintegration of the royal privileges and royal purses, and palaces.
    Imagine, her grandfather was the Maharaja of Baroda, fabulously wealthy (her family was from Cooch Behar, a minor principality in the north east)...and in the end, she was a private citizen, still admired, still royal in their eyes.
    I loved seeing her, so elegant in a beautiful sari, worn so elegantly and effortlessly, at the Gem Palace in the late afternoon. Imagine, her guests were dukes and duchesses and authors and designers and famous friends (perhaps the Dickie she spoke to)...and she would bring them to the GP and they would try on diamond rings and necklaces. She was discreet, was obviously well known to the Kasliwal family that owns GP, but one knew who she was, without her making any obvious gesture.
    Her houseman and attendants had such affection and admiration for her. There was also stress in the family, differences...puja and devotions I am sure gave her great peace.
    God Bless the Rajmata--Krishna and all the gods...

  11. Diane, Another superb piece of writing. And to think all these stories would have had to fight to get outlets in the pre-blogging days. Look forward to your posts. Nelson

  12. Hello, Nelson--

    Happy to see you here--and on Facebook!

    Please check in at least twice a week--and send your comments. Your voice is much appreciated here.
    I hope you are having a wonderful summer in New York.
    cheers, DIANE

  13. What a privileged life she had and yet she was involved in social projects until the end. I did not know her name but the way you described her, her life and your encounter creates a vivid image of this extaordinary woman. Superb images also!

  14. so nice to read your blog.. i went to the girls school in jaipur which was the first school found by Rajmata Gayitri Devi.. it was indeed a privilege to study there and i wonder sometimes at how we would have developed without MGD there to make us proud and privileged to be girls! in a country where even today some people aspire for "sons" It gave us a great sense of self and dignity.. to be able to interact with and observe her as we grew up was an absolute blessing!


    I'm delighted to hear your 'insider' comment about the school started by the wonderful Maharani! You are right that the schools are superb--and are extremely well run and with high academic standards.
    It is always so fascinating to see the highest levels of education in India--even in remote villages.
    India is a fabulous conundrum. Indian women are so talented and bright and ambitious and smart, and yet often their status is considered lower. Old ways still persist. Family traditionas are powerful. But through fine education--like that encouraged by the Rajmata, girls and women can and do succeed.
    Pooja-please be sure to tell your friends about this feature on the Rajmata--which is, as far as I know, the only personal memoir written about her in the west. I will be writing about India in future.

  16. I also was privileged to meet Gayatri Devi and appreciated your lovely tribute. Mrs Gandhi was jealous of her because she was so beautiful, received more votes that Mrs. G did and was married to the man Mrs. G wanted! She hated her so much that she put Gayatri Devi in jail with prostitutes and said she belonged there!

  17. Dear Diane,
    That is a very well written piece on the late Rajmata of Jaipur.I enjoyed reading it and just wanted to tell you that you should put it on her page titled RAJMATA GAYATRI DEVI OF JAIPUR on Facebook where I've put all her obits from across the world.
    Dharmendar Kanwar
    (Author of Enduring Grace, A biography of Rajmata Gayatri Devi. Roli Books. 2004)

  18. Very late in the day I came across this articlethrough Suzanne Allen and was so fascinated to read more about the woman I had heard so much about while I was writing about the Maharajah's beautiful American filmstar girlfriend Virginia Cherrill. I'm not too sure that she and Ayesha would have given quite the same story of their early romances with Jai, but I do wish I had met the Maharani and - now,thanks to you, I have a glimpse of a fascinating personality.
    Her family were extremely gracious to me when I visited Jaipur and I was sorry not have the opportunity to make the personal acquaintance of such a remarkable woman.
    Your account is so vivid and interesting: thankyou, Diane
    Miranda Seymour