A sense of royalty gleams when one talks about the grandeur of the city of Jaipur. It's a city permeated by tradition, sleek architecture, resplendent forts, and the ever-healthy history of its kings and queens. Let's talk about the third Maharani of Jaipur, Rajmata Gayatri Devi, and her life that unfolds through the evolution of public roles, as a fashion icon, a record-holding politician, and as a prisoner during a state of emergency.
A princess born into the royalty of Cooch Behar in Bengal, her father and mother descended from the Koch Rajbongshi dynasty and the Gaekwad dynasty in Maharashtra, respectively. She went on to marry the then-Ruler of Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh II.
A strong-willed royal, the first challenge that came her way was the purdah system in the kingdom of her marriage, where women were required to cover their faces, a practice she strongly objected to, setting the stage for her lifelong commitment to challenging traditional norms and advocating for women's rights. She went on to establish a unique school for young girls, educating them about their rights throughout her tenure of service. The major transformation of her career took place after the independence of India in 1947 when she was still only 28 years old. The conventions of royal households had completely transformed, and they had been reduced to merely influential voices. The family supported the new Republic of India and merged in, supporting the instrumental party, the Indian National Congress.
Rajmata Gayatri Devi had other plans and joined hands with the Rajagopalachari-founded Swatantrata Party in 1962. She also declined an offer to join the Congress from the then Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri. The young Jana Sangh won the elections in 1967 in an alliance with the Swatantrata Party, while Gayatri Devi registered a Guinness World Record for claiming a landslide victory in her constituency. Time escalated quickly when she lost her husband in 1970 in a polo match. However, things hardly improved when her princely state, along with her title, was taken away by the central government, led by the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The period of emergency that followed shook everyone, and for Gayatri Devi, it was a time of dark, gloomy nights that reduced her to a prisoner, arrested for alleged non-disclosure of assets. The arrests were made under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities (COFEPOSA) Act when pounds and coins of various kinds were discovered in her residence in Jaipur's Moti Doongri. Much has been written about her experience in jail, and it is described as caliginous and bleak.
As for her days in jail, her cell was smelly and appalling. Her privilege allowed her a newspaper and a cup of tea, along with permission for evening walks and a neighboring prisoner to clean her room. John Zubrzycki, in his book "The House of Jaipur: Inside Story of India's Most Glamorous Royal Family," writes about the eve of Christmas in 1975 when Rajmata supposedly sat in her cell with her cassette recorder, eating a Christmas cake, in the company of quite a few sewer rats.
She went on to win her constituency seat thrice before leaving public service completely, citing strife with Indira Gandhi, whose regime was marked by dictatorial practices, unregulated behavior, and controversies. Her apparent dislike of Gayatri Devi was not hidden, as she referred to her as a 'doll of glass' in parliament. She is said to have been irked by Gayatri Devi's status and royalty, which she had observed from their youth in Shantiniketan, West Bengal.
The queen spent the final years of her life mediating property disputes within her family, which were eventually settled through Supreme Court intervention. The recent 15,000 crore suit involving the Rambagh and Jai Mahal Hotels and palaces was resolved, with the properties being handed over to Gayatri Devi's son, Jagat Singh. His death in 1997 left further distribution in conflict.
Maharani Gayatri Devi was undeniably ahead of her time. She was surprisingly elegant, and her beauty was talked about worldwide, thanks to her inclusion in the Top 10 most beautiful women in a Vogue magazine. Her love for royal sports such as polo, shooting, and horse-riding added luster to her royal status. Born into two royal families, educated in London and India's finest institutions in Shantiniketan and Switzerland, she held all special privileges at her disposal. Her private collection included imported Rolls Royce cars, Mercedes, and aircraft, making her status unmatched. She passed away in 2009 due to lung ailments after leading a life as royalty, politician, emergency prisoner, and experiencing tragedy and disputes, alongside being a beloved public figure. Her desire to return to Jaipur remained unfulfilled.