A Princess Remembered

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 10:29 AM in , , ,

Maharani Gayatri Devi
23 May 1919 – 29 July 2009

Born in London as the princess of Cooch Behar (West Bengal), voted by Vogue magazine as one of the ten most beautiful women in the world, third wife of the last ruling prince Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur, a pioneer in women’s education in Rajasthan, an avid equestrienne like her husband, a Guinness record holder for the biggest landslide Lok Sabha victory of 78.25% of the total votes cast during her term in governance in 1962 (C. Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party, running against the Congress), brand ambassador of Nakshatra diamond jewellery for their royal princess collection, and the owner of a Rs.2000 crore legacy after her death – are some feathers in the cap of an enigmatic Rajmata of Jaipur, Maharani Gayatri Devi.

A walk down the imperially embedded corridors of royalty…
My first impression of the lady was to see her show up meticulously for each school function. As it happens, I am an alumnus of Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ Public School in Jaipur. The school was founded by Rajmata in 1943 and subsequently the management was handed over to the double tier staff. Like most aged educational institutions, the school started off with just 30 students in the first batch. Overtime, the numbers have increased to encompass about 2500 students studying at the institute at one time.

During my younger days in the renowned institution, I remember seeing Gayatri Devi grace each occasion with her presence. She used to turn up in a convoy of white Ambassadors on both ends and a glistening swanky sedan for herself in the middle. Draped in crisp chiffon sarees, she would wear spotless white pearls for jewellery and cover her head in keeping with the tradition. Others of the royal family, including Rani Vidya Devi, often accompanied her on various occasions. When asked to speak on the stage, she would speak passionately about women, the importance of their role in the society, the importance of good education and the power of knowledge. Citing examples from her personal life, she would speak to us about the struggle of growing up as a woman and would constantly encourage us to take life head-on as it comes. She discussed the challenges of her own life, and would talk to us about her lost husband and son in a ceremonious manner. We would listen to it with unwavering attention.

The one thing that she never spoke about was the valour that she displayed when the Indira Gandhi government locked her up in Tihar Jail for five months in 1971 on charges of tax evasion. Eventually she was released for lack of evidence. Humility and modesty infested her in good measure. Upon her release, she quit politics and went on to write an autobiography. The book was called ‘A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur’ and that’s where we get our knowledge about her days in prison. It also talks about her responses to the several challenges that she faced as a maharani.

The diamond-studded battle for good health…
As part of the privileged lot who got to see her up close on various occasions we also, sadly, bore witness to her deteriorating health. For the first time in the history of the school since its inception, on my passing-out ceremony in 2005, she delivered a sitting lecture out of a chair. That night she explained that this was such because she ‘had no strength to stand for more than a few minutes.’ The end of that farewell ceremony was a detour from tradition too. While the norm was for her to sign each student’s kurta at the close of the night, that day the maharani could sign just a handful before she assessed her health was frail and decided to take off with other members of the royal family. Right then, we knew that something was not right.

The heartbreaking end and a timeless legacy…
The lady who gave us subtle lessons in sophistication by her elegant displays of royalty suddenly passed away on 29th day of July this year due to chronic health troubles and an ultimate lung failure. It would be wrong to say that we didn’t see it coming, but the abruptness of the event took us all by surprise. When the denial mode ended, the vacuum was filled by a deep sense of remorse at the tragic loss.

Along with being a lady of substance who underlined the role of women in the today’s society, she was labeled a rebel in the royal houseold because of her non-conformist behaviour and varied interests. Her rollicking romance with Sawai Man Singh before marriage, her interest in sports, her exceptional work in politics, and her unbound thoughts on the way a modern society should work helped define her as a person beyond convention. When we were in her presence, we shone in the light emanating from her glittering persona.

To walk a golden line of balance after the demise…
The aftermath of her death has been disheartening. A property dispute has broken out in the royal family. The three main claimants to her assets are – her grandchildren Devraj Singh and Lalitya Devi (born to late Jagat Singh and Priyanandana Rangsit) and her step son Bhawani Singh by the law of primogeniture (the eldest son of Sawai Man Singh with his marriage to Marudhar Kanwar). The absence of a real will is causing turbulent waves within the family affairs of the various fighting factions. A public will to be displayed to the media on 9th August never came up. Devraj and Lalitya came up with a corny one-page will of their own recently.

The disputed assets are the Ram Bagh Palace (worth almost Rs.500 crore - leased to Taj Group for running a luxury hotel), Jai Mahal Palace (another Rs.300 crore), Moti Doongri Fort (Rs.100 crore), Lilypool (the palace complex where she lived), City Palace (Rs.200 crore) and Sawai Man Singh’s clubs and investments (Rs.500 crore). In addition several pieces of art, diamonds, jewellery, designer clothes and other personal items are up for grabs too.
(Source for listing assets: India Today, 7 September 2009)

The sooner the dispute gets resolved the better. Firstly, because is brings a lot of disgrace to the blue bloods of Rajasthan. And second, because Gayatri Devi would never have entertained her descendants quibbling over property. It’s a family of plenty, and hence whatever comes out of the battle will be closely watched by the public. Till then, we should focus on remembering the maharani for what she was - a living legend and a voice to many. Count this as my untimely tribute to the lady of grace, poise and personal strength.

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