Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Maharani Remembered.

HH Maharani Gayatri Devi (1919-2009)
The brilliant and charismatic former Maharani of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi passed away at the age of 90 last Wednesday in Jaipur. Long after India abolished royal titles after independence, Gayatri Devi continued to be known both with affection and reverence as Rajmata (roughly translated, Queen Mother). The women of her family were known to be both exceedingly intelligent and possess exquisite taste, at a time in India where the former was yet to be acknowledged favorably. Gayatri Devi was a timeless beauty much like her mother, the Maharani Indira Raje of Cooch Behar. While Gayatri Devi was famous for making radiant appearances in her customary, light hued chiffon saris, it was Indira, a fiery woman and fashion icon, who popularized the style of sari draping most popular today. Gayatri Devi's formidable grandmother, the Maharani Chimnabai of Baroda once famously instructed Gayatri Devi to "never wear emeralds with a green sari ... they look so much better with pink."
Photo: AP Photo.
Gayatri Devi herself, was not content to flit about in exalted circles (though she did so with ease). Her grandmother Chimnabai having broken purdah - which for a royal of her time, was absolutely groundbreaking - Gayatri Devi followed suit and pursued her inherited interest in social welfare. Gayatri Devi championed the cause of girls' education in Jaipur and founded the Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls' Public School. Not content with social activism alone, she pushed the trend, started by Chimnabai, forward, by entering politics. From her base in Jaipur, Gayatri Devi rallied her former subjects behind her cause, and was elected to parliament by the largest majority ever recorded.

Photo: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.
If you are like me, and enthralled by the stories of Gayatri Devi and members of the Indian royalty who defied expectations, I highly recommend Lucy Moore's Maharanis: a Family Saga of Four Queens. In it, Moore presents a thorough yet eminently readable recounting of the lives of a family of powerful maharanis, ending of course with Gayatri Devi, whose life intersected with major political upheaval in India. The lives of Gayatri Devi's grandmothers and mother reveal India's inevitable course towards independence, with Gayatri Devi's life reflecting the fruition of independence as well as the political drama and aftermath. The passing of Gayatri Devi, the last Maharani of Jaipur, is indeed the end of an opulent and intriguing chapter in Indian history. May she rest in peace.
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