Maharani Gayatri Devi
In the twentieth century, very few Indian women could have claimed to have held strong sway over the public, in India and abroad. Maharani Gayatri Devi happened to be one of them. She was uniquely positioned to wield influence in the socio-political circles of her times. But her popularity extended beyond the realm of stately affairs, most notably to the world of fashion. She was featured in Vogue magazine's Ten Most Beautiful Women list.
Born in London (23 May 1919) to Prince Jitendra Narayan of Cooch Behar (presently located in West Bengal) and Princess Indira Raje, Gayatri Devi was destined to have a quintessential Indian royal upbringing. Her father was the younger brother to the Crown Prince of Cooch Behar, while her mother was a Maratha Princess, the only daughter of the Maratha King, Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III. As a child born to the second in line to the throne, her life would have largely been uneventful if not for her uncle, Rajendra Narayan’s untimely death in 1913. Once her father ascended the throne, her family came under the spotlight, with them being frequently written about.
A young Gayatri Devi was ardent about pursuing education, which led to her enrolling in schools in India and Europe. The then-princess studied at Glendower Preparatory School in London, Patha Bhavana, Visva-Bharati University, Shantiniketan, and later at Lausanne, Switzerland, wrapping up her academic career by fine-tuning her secretarial skills at the London School of Secretaries. Apart from academics, Princess Gayatri Devi nurtured several recreational activities. Most noteworthy was her flair for equestrian sporting. An accomplished equestrian herself, along with her future husband, she was a lifelong patron of the sport.
Princess Gayatri Devi first set her eyes on her future husband, Sawai Man Singh II, when the latter had come to Calcutta and stayed with her family. The soon-to-be King swept Gayatri Devi off her feet, leading to a whirlwind romance replete with clandestine meetings in private corners of the vast grounds of the palace in Cooch Behar, culminating with a marriage proposal while driving in Man Singh II’s Bentley. Despite resistance to the relationship from several quarters including the princess’ mother, the pair married on 9 May 1940. At the time of their marriage, Man Singh II had already been married twice. His first two marriages were to brides chosen from the royal family of Jodhpur. And as was customary in Rajput royal households at the time, all his three wives lived in the same household together. The marriage produced one child, a son, Prince Jagat Singh, who later in his life was granted his paternal uncle's fief of Isarda, Raja of Isarda, as a subsidiary title. Prince Jagat Singh had two children: Rajkumari Lalitya Kumari and Maharaj Devraj Singh, Raja of Isarda. Today, they are her only surviving descendants, and as such, have claimed to be heirs of their paternal grandmother.
Her life in Independent India
Maharaja Man Singh II continued to rule the princely state of Jaipur in the British Raj from 1922 to 1947. In 1948, after the state was absorbed into independent India, he was granted certain privileges, along with the continued use of the title Maharaja of Jaipur by the newly formed Government of India. During this time, given the substantial reduction of her former responsibilities, Gayatri Devi decided to forge a career in the Indian political scene. In 1962, she ran for Parliament and won the constituency in the Lok Sabha, in a campaign that saw the world's largest landslide victory, winning a stellar 192,909 votes out of 246,516 cast. She continued to hold this seat until 1971 as a member of the now defunct, classical-liberal Swatantra Party founded by C. Rajagopalachari.
Her personal political leaning often pitted her against the then-all-powerful Indian National Congress. She was also an outspoken critic of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered her arrest during the Emergency on baseless allegations of having violated tax laws. A political prisoner, she served a five-month sentence in Tihar Jail, Delhi.
In the late seventies, Maharani Gayatri Devi retired from politics and published her biography, A Princess Remembers in 1976. She thereafter slowly retreated from public life, living away from the media glare in her countryside estate, and spending much of her time with her grandchildren.
She died at the age of 90 on 29 July 2009, succumbing to lung failure.
A Style Icon for the Ages
It is believed that Gayatri Devi's sense of style was deeply influenced by that of her mother’s and grandmother’s. Maharani quotes both their advice on fashion in her memoir A Princess Remembers. One such piece of advice comes from her grandmother, which states: “Never wear emeralds with a green sari as I had, they look so much better with pink.” Writer Bethany Trepanier writes: “These lessons passed on by the women in her family contributed to Gayatri Devi’s immaculate taste that was reflected throughout her life.”
Gayatri Devi’s standard attire of soft pastel shade chiffon saris paired with long-sleeved blouses, and a string of white pearls became a personification of traditional Indian elegance. Her minimal makeup complemented with a dash of carefully chosen shade of lipstick also accentuated her style statement. Interestingly, fashion designer Sabyasachi created five limited-edition saris inspired by the Maharani for his Spring/Summer 2013 collection. As was preferred by the Maharani, he produced saris in shades of soft creams, pinks and blues using fine French fabrics such as organza, satin and tulle and paired them with satin blouses of ten-inch sleeves.
Trepanier writes, ‘Throughout the years, her style remained simple yet exquisitely intricate. She maintained a regal look without being covered in jewels. She was nonetheless particular about how she presented herself: hair coiffed to perfection in cascading waves, eyes minimally touched by mascara, lips accentuated by a deep red stain, and pearls adorning her long, elegant neck. No matter the number of years that passed, the Maharani remained an ageless beauty.’ Her flawless sense of taste will inspire legions of women in generations to come.