Sunday, 11 July 2010

Rajasthan - Gayatri Devi, the Last Maharani of Jaipur

It's almost a year since Gayatri Devi, the last Maharani of Jaipur, passed away, aged ninety.  I've just finished reading her autobiography, A Princess Remembers and it's been a fascinating read - one that has covered, not only the Maharani's interesting and event-filled life, but also a period in India's history that saw independence from the British, the separation of British India into three separate states and the birth of a turbulent and sometimes frenetic experiment in democracy.  I've read two fictional books previously that cover the period of India's independence and partition from the (then) two Pakistans - Salman Rushdie's book Midnight's Children is an amazing read and I also loved Shauna Singh Baldwin's award-winning novel, What the Body Remembers.  Gayatri's book is a real account of events and it re-inforced my knowledge of modern Indian history and gave me a perspective on events that I didn't previously have.

Now, I'm not a monarchist and don't support the existence of royal families, so this isn't a book I would normally want to read.  Nevertheless, it was interesting to peek into the life of Indian royalty, trying to imagine what it would be like to have 700 servants to run your household, including six butlers, thirty grooms for the horses and four footmen (what exactly does a footman do?  Put on your shoes?).  Gayatri was born in the princely state of Cooch Behar, which is north of present-day Bangladesh and a distance of almost 1,000 miles from Rajasthan.  Like most royal families in India, her family had connections all over the sub-continent and her maternal grandparents were from the princely state of Baroda (Vadodara, Gujarat).  Gayatri met the Maharaja Man Singh of Jaipur, who she called Jai, at her family home in Calcutta when she was twelve.  She became his third wife and moved to live in a succession of palaces and royal homes throughout Jaipur region.

Her upbringing was one of immense privilege, being educated, not only at an exclusive school in India, but also at a finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland.  Her summers were spent in England and France (Dinard and Cannes), with winters skiing in Engelburg and travel as a tourist to pre-war Prague and Budapest.  It was a life of Schiaparelli for clothes, Farragamo for shoes and Fortnum & Mason's for everything else!  Before her marriage she lived the fairly free life of a wealthy, young woman, dining at the Willingdon club in Bombay, travelling to Calcutta every autumn for the polo season and retreating from the hottest part of the year in hill stations such as Darjeeling and Ootacamund. 

When she married Jai and moved to Rajasthan, she was expected to observe a level of purdah she hadn't really experienced before.  Society in Rajasthan was much more conservative that other parts of India and she also found the style of dressing to be very different, with brighter colours, pierced noses and bangles right up her armpits.  I get the sense that her marriage to Jai was a love-match, as much as anything else.  Certainly, her parents weren't entirely happy to have a Princess of Cooch Behar becoming the third wife of a Maharaja.  Gayatri's attitude towards her co-wives was very pragmatic.  She understood that both of those marriages had been arranged for Jai during his childhood.  She was the one who continued to travel with Jai, to Europe, the United States and South America. 

When India became independent, the excesses of a princely lifestyle finally caught up with them.  Gayatri describes how the 600 or so princely states agreed to become a part of the newly-independent India, thereby unifying the country, as opposed to fragmenting its existence.  She talks about this as a choice that the various princes made, out of their genuine goodwill towards their new country, however I can't help thinking they didn't have much choice in the matter.  Her husband benefitted from this system for a while and, indeed, gained slightly more power as the Rajpramukh (Head of State) for all of the newly-created state of Rajasthan.  Her account of events is obviously biased and I couldn't help thinking that the description of Jai's subjects in Jaipur and how loyal they were to him and his family, was just part of the vicious circle of dependence on a monarch, which the new Indian government was desperate to break. 

Gayatri herself went into politics in the 1960's and has gone down in The Guinness Book of Records as the political candidate securing the biggest ever landslide in an election.  The days of princely rule were numbered though and, by the 1970's Indira Gandhi had broken the opposition, imposed a state of emergency and thrown politicians like Gayatri into jail, on trumped up charges.  India's history is incredibly facinating and the changes that have taken place in India since independence are nothing short of revolutionary. 

It's hard to feel sorry for someone like Gayatri, who was lucky enough to have enjoyed a world-class lifestyle and never to have suffered deprevation or lived in poverty, like so many of her fellow citizens.  I guess it was inevitable that the princely states, which were tolerated for so long under British rule, would become obselete in the world's largest democracy.  One point that Gayatri makes that I can agree with, is the short-sightedness of local politicians in terms of preserving the beauty of Rajasthani cities like Jaipur.  Gayatri and her husband found it heart-breaking to watch Jaipur change from an ordered and architecturally balanced city, under their rule, to a sprawling metropolis, with unimpeded social and industrial development, under a democratic government.  Gayatri points out that the royal family of Jaipur were always going to think about tradition and the long-term development of the city, rather than making a 'quick buck' and ruining Jaipur's beauty with a plethora of advertising billboards and ramshackle markets.  Whilst, I think that's true, I also think it has more to do with the corrupt nature of modern politics, than the need to maintain a royal family in Jaipur. 
Post a Comment