Elegant Rebel of Jaipur

The Rajmata with Jackie Kennedy in India.

When I first arrived in India, Jaipur’s Wind Palace looked like an exotic fairytale castle to me, like a giant honeycomb, pierced with tiny windows from which hundreds of women in the royal entourage once watched the world go by, while remaining sequestered from the view of outsiders. That was before I met Gayatri Devi—the Rajmata of Jaipur, who, as I learned this morning, died last summer. I appreciate the delicacy of her rebellion.

To some, the Rajmata (the polite name for a widowed Maharani) was known as a politician. She won her parlimentary seat in 1961 by 175,000 votes, setting the Guiness Book’s record for the largest proportional majority ever won in a democratic election. By 1975, however, she found herself on the wrong side of power, locked in cell of the Tihar Jail without running water. Though never formally charged, she was kept there for months.
She arrived in Jaipur in 1940 as a 21 year-old bride descended from a line of powerful princesses, those who had both befriended the British aristocracy and fought for women’s rights. As an outspoken widow, still beautiful in her late 80s when we met, her home was full of photos of her husband, the handsome, smiling Maharajah, whom friends called Jai: a portrait painted with his arms folded across his chest, wearing a turban and a smirk; a photograph of the couple sitting cheek to cheek in a nightclub banquette; the two posing on the lawn of the White House with Jackie Kennedy.

The young Maharani and Maharaja of Jaipur in the 1940s.

She was his third wife (the other marriages were arranged). She had studied with the poet Tagore as a child, attended boarding school in England and in Switzerland. She was sporty, wore a daring bob and was and utterly sophisticated. Throughout the mid-20th century, she traveled by Jai’s side, following the polo circuit and hosting a string of glittering guests in India. But she also challenged the status quo in her regal way.

Jaipur's Wind Palace.

She simply wouldn’t stay locked up in her castle. During Jaipur’s official festivals, she acted with discretion, covering up in a veil or keeping herself hidden in the Wind Palace. Otherwise, “I played tennis, went out horseback riding every morning and drove my own car,” she told me. She was one of the world’s most elegant rebels.

Eventually Jaipur’s women followed her lead.

The Rajmata at home during our interview, several years before she died.