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Gayatri Devi (1919—)

Gayatri Devi (1919—)

Maharani of Jaipur and member of the Parliament of India . Born on May 23, 1919, in London, England; one of five children of the Maharajah Jitendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur of Cooch Behar and Princess Indiraraje Gaekwar of Baroda; educated by private tutors; attended St. Cyprian's in Eastbourne, England; graduated from Shantiniketan University, Balpur, India, 1936; attended Brilliamount school, Lausanne, Switzerland, and the London College of Secretaries; married Sawai Man Singh Bahadur (the maharajah of Jaipur), on May 9, 1940 (died 1970); children: one son, Maharaj Kumar Singh.

Gayatri Devi, the daughter of the maharajah of Cooch Behar and Princess Indiraraje Gaekwar of Baroda, grew up in a sumptuous palace in what is now West Bengal, near the Himalayan foothills of eastern India. Her father died in 1922, when Gayatri was a small child, and she grew up in the care of her mother and attended by the 500 servants that inhabited the palace. Educated by tutors and in private schools, she graduated from Shantiniketan University in 1936, then attended finishing school in Switzerland. In 1940, she married Sawai Man Singh Bahadur (known as Jai), an internationally known polo player, and the maharajah of Jaipur, ruler of a 15,600-square-mile fief in the northwest Indian desert country of Rajputana.

Settling into a life of royal luxury in the 60-room castle on the outskirts of the "pink city" of Jaipur, the maharani encountered many unfamiliar customs, the most difficult of which was sharing married life with Jai's two other wives and his several children. Gayatri Devi, however, adapted well to her various social duties and combined them with a considerable interest in the welfare of her three million subjects, particularly in the areas of education and women's rights. She founded three schools, including the Maharani Gayatri Devi Public School in Jaipur, a progressive school for girls, a sewing school, and a school of arts and crafts, through which she hoped to perpetuate the handicrafts of Jaipur. She also served in the Red Cross and on the purchasing committee of India's National Museum.

After India won its independence from Great Britain in 1947 and the Republic was established, Jai lost his sovereignty and became the ceremonial head of the newly formed state of Rejasthan. Unable to maintain his standard of living on the $378,000 yearly salary the Indian government awarded him for life (a privy purse), he converted the Rambagh Palace into a luxury hotel and moved his family into the more modest Raj Mahal Palace. The added income from the business enterprise allowed the family to maintain, among other luxuries, several hundred servants, a fleet of 100 automobiles, a stable of polo ponies, and a herd of six elephants. In October 1949, Gayatri Devi gave birth to the couple's first son, informally known as Jagat.

As displaced nobility, the maharajah and maharani lost much of their political clout in the eyes of their former subjects. "The government tried to push us out of the public eye," Gayatri explained, "and we spent more and more of our time abroad." In 1961, the maharani joined the Swatantra (Freedom) Party, which was founded in 1959, as a rightist opponent of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi 's Congress Party. Shortly afterward, Gayatri announced her candidacy for the House of the People, the lower chamber of the Indian Parliament. "The Congress government was becoming rather like a dictatorship," she said, "and seemed to be trying to turn our country rather into a Communist country."

Gayatri campaigned by jeep, touring the 1,900 villages of Rejasthan and delivering up to 20 speeches a day in which she told her peasant audiences that the corrupt politicians were growing rich on the labor of the poor, and she intended to do something about it. The crowds that gathered to see her, however, seemed more impressed with the fact that their glamorous maharani had descended among them than with her political message, and showered her with marigold petals, and offered baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables at every stop. In addition to her field campaign, the maharani opened the palace grounds to the public and granted private audiences to those who volunteered to work on the campaign. On election day in February 1962, Gayatri Devi received 192,909 votes, the largest plurality of any candidate in the country.

During her first five-year term, Gayatri focused on the politics of her home state of Rejasthan. As the 1967 election approached, she was advised by Swatantra Party leaders, who hoped to oust the Congress Party from their control of the state government, to form an electoral coalition between the Rejasthan Freedom Party and the Hindu Jan Sangh (People's Party). The ploy was only partially effective. The Congress Party retained control of the state, although the Swatantra-Jan Sangh coalition succeeded in depriving it of a legislative majority. The maharani lost her bid for a state legislative seat but was reelected to the national Parliament. When opponents of the Congress Party in Rejasthan protested the return of the party to power, violence broke out in Jaipur, resulting in 130 arrests. The maharani escaped arrest but made clear her support of the uprising. "I will not sit idle until the Congress goes, whether it is in a week, or two weeks or a month," she said. On March 9, 1967, she asked the federal government to take control of Rejasthan, dissolve the newly elected legislature, and set up a new state government. Ultimately, the Congress Party gained control, and the maharani became disillusioned with politics.

In June 1970, Jai, who had previously suffered a mild heart attack, collapsed while playing polo and died, after which the maharani secluded herself in mourning. In 1971, responding to Prime Minister Gandhi's dissolution of Parliament and her call for elections a year ahead of schedule, Gayatri reluctantly agreed to run for the opposition from Jaipur. Winning by 50,000 more votes than her Congress Party opponent, she came out of retreat to return to Parliament. However, Gayatri suffered a devastating political blow in December 1971, when both houses of Parliament passed a bill that "de-recognized" all former rulers, thus abolishing their privileges, titles, and privy purses, including those of her late husband.

Gayatri continued to serve out her term in Parliament, still concentrating her efforts on making life better for the villagers who comprised her constituency, but admitting that politics was a full-time job for which she did not have the time. She remained connected with the City Palace Museum, and in conjunction with her school of arts and crafts, she formed a company to export cotton rugs, or durries, made by the local weavers. Finally, her political life behind her, she moved from the palace to Lillypool, a house in the gardens of Rambagh Palace where she and Jai had planned to spend their later years.

sources:

Gayatri Devi, and Santha Rama Rau. A Princess Remembers. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott, 1976.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1968. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1968.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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