Book Review: A Princess Remembers

16 Feb

Devi, Gayatri with Santha Rama Rau, A Princess Remembers: The
Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur.
London, Weldenfeld and Nicolson/Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1976
New Delhi, Tarang Paperbacks, 1990, 335 pp., illus., pbk.

With the Victoria and Albert Museum-organized exhibition Maharaja doing brisk business at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum until April 10 and with the prospect of an equally enthusiastic audience when it reaches Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in June, 2012, this memoir holds particular relevance. I forget where I acquired this disintegrating Indian-published paperback, but it’s a wonderful amplification of the 200 objects and videotapes temporarily housed at the Asian Art Museum, the one-time San Francisco public library adapted for displaying Avery Brundage’s gift to San Francisco.

While the Maharani dedicated her pages to the people of Cooch Bahar and Japiur, there is a special connection to parts of the traveling exhibit.  The Maharani was the daughter of Indira Gaekwar Devi, the only daughter of the Gaekwar of Baroda.  The Gaekwar, village-raised until he was twelve, was chosen by the Dowager Maharani to be the next ruler of Baroda.  Devi describes vividly the  force-fed education of her grandfather upon accession as Gaekwar;  he studied and mastered the Marathi, Gujerati, Urdu and English languages, English and Indian history, arithmetic, geography, chemistry, political economy, philosophy and Sanskrit. The Gaekwar, his wife and Indira Devi’s photographs are included in the exhibit.
The Dowager Maharani’s canny choice provided real gains for the citizens of the territory; roads, schools, colleges, libraries, a museum, education for women and continuing concern for improvements, a just administration, even introducing the concept of divorce. The Gaekwar even educated a Harijan, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

Devi describes her grandmother’s durbar; sitting on the tradtional gaddi,  dressed in a traditional Maharati sari, laden with jewels and diamond anklets,  she received  Baroda’s noble women while the Gaekwar’s subsidized troupe performed bharata natyam at the end of the hall.

Indira, the Gaekwar’s only  daughter, was one of the first Indian princesses to graduate from college.  With her four brothers, they were presented to Queen Victoria.  In 1910 her parents informed her they had arranged a marriage with the Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior, another  major member of the historic Maharathi federation, but twenty years Indira’s senior. If consummated, Indira faced purdah and life in the zenana or women’s quarters, with just  rare occasions to enjoy access to her own brothers.

Enter the 1911 Delhi Durbar where George V and Queen Mary, the first British monarchs to travel to India, receiving homage from the Indian princes , and marking the  capital’s transfer from Calcutta to New Delhi, its buildings  on land  donated by a Maharaja of Jaipur.  At this historic event Indira met  the second prince of Cooch Bahar, a small principality on the border of Nepal, Bhutan and Bengal, noted for its tiger shoots and its rulers for close association with English society.

The pair fell in love; Indira wrote a polite refusal to the Maharaja of Gwalior,  enduring two years of separation and secret letters before the couple gained consent to marry, outside India.  Soon after, the Maharaja of Cooch Bahar, unable to marry an English woman of his choice, and an actress(!) drank himself to death with champagne.  Indira’s husband became the Maharaja. In their brief  nine years  together, Indira bore two sons and three daughters. Gayatri,  known as Ayesha, child number four, was born in England.

With Indira as regent for her seven-year old son, Bhaiya as Maharaja, the ‘Twenties and ‘Thirties for the family were years of study and enjoyment of a comparatively casual existence in Cooch Behar.  Gayatri describes a life alternately of simplicity and vast protocol and complexity: three cooks – English, Bengali and Maharati; separate kitchens, assistants and those procuring and preparing the food for cooking.  The grounds required twenty gardners; twenty stablemen; twelve for the garages and almost a hundred for the elephants; sweepers; a professional tennis coach, his assistant, ten ball boys and the guards.  She estimated the staff at four or five hundred.  She and her sisters each had a maid in addition to a governess, while the young Maharaja had four servants and Indira added a secretary.  Seeing miniatures of Indian princes with enormous entourages, this recitation clarifies the why’s and wherefores of such crowded paintings.

The habits of affluent and  extended Indian families are vividly described, along with childhood pleasures in this small principality; riding, tennis, tiger hunts; traveling to visit Baroda relatives; summers in Darjeeling, her mother’s fastidious habits and famed capacity as hostess. Gayatri also discusses her fascination and connection to the mahouts, the men who trained, rode and handled the elephants, shooting a tiger when she was twelve.

Gayatri was very small when she first met Jai Singh, the Maharaja of Jaipur.  The family traveled to Ootacamund, where the Baroda relatives had a house.  A visit there spanned a thousand miles, required a week’s travel by train and an entourage of a hundred, thirty horses, several trucks of luggage.  The trip included narrow and standard gauge rail travel, overnight stays in Calcutta and Madras and finally automobile to 7000 feet to “Ooty,” a replica of  Victorian style England.

Gayatri was five when she met Jai Singh, Maharaja of Jaipur at Ooty; then thirteen he was primarily interested in getting Indian food.  Jai Singh, adopted by his father’s cousin the Mahajara,  had acceded to the title when he was eleven.  His first marriage to a Jodhpur princess occurred when he was twelve. A daughter was born in 1929, his first son in 1931.  His second wife, another Jodphur princess, occurred in 1932; both lived their lives in purdah, confined by custom to the zanana.  Gayatri  became his third wife in 1940, destined to help liberate Jaipur’s women.

It is an extraordinary tale, filled with the notables of history, from The Prince of Wales, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip to Mohatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, Gayatri’s creation of a girl’s school, her election to Parliament, Jai Singh’s transforming Rambagh Palace to a hotel,  the inexorable march of Indian history and family tragedies.  It  is evocative and beautifully written by Santha Rama Rao, herself a magnetic figure and one of the early Indian women to graduate from a American  college.  If you can manage to acquire a copy, you’ll be greatly rewarded.

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