Author John Zubrzycki’s 'The House of Jaipur' gives rare glimpse into India’s most intriguing royal families
There is more to this story of royalty than exquisite maharanis, handsome maharajas, fabulous jewels and opulent palaces
Award-winning journalist and acclaimed author John Zubrzycki’s latest book is a rare glimpse into the fairytale of one of India’s most intriguing royal families. One of the last remaining symbols of India’s feudal past, Maharani Gayatri Devi (who was named Ayesha because her mother was reading Rider Haggard’s She at the time of her birth) was born in Cooch Behar, one of the country’s most progressive princely states. Brought up as a tomboy, she was given the same privileges as her brothers, including horse riding, duck shooting and hunting. It’s ironic then that she agreed to become the third wife of Sawai Man Singh II (Jai)—the “playboy prince”—who came from a highly conservative Rajput society.
Many considered Jai selfish, lazy and largely uninterested in the administration of his state. His world consisted mostly of polo, beautiful women and expensive cars. The British opposed his marriage with Ayesha as they feared it would lead to unrest between Jaipur and the other states in Rajputana. Ayesha’s brother too warned her of Jai’s philandering ways, but she was headstrong and too much in love to take heed of anyone’s words.
On her part, Ayesha was described by some as a rare combination of Sita, Lakshmi and the Rani of Jhansi—“a queen with a cause, ready to toss away the comforts of palace life for the heat and dust of electioneering.” In the early 1950s, she began playing an active role in public life—as the president of the Badminton Association of India, vice president of the Tennis Association of India and running a handful of schools. Apart from this, she also became involved in the All India Women’s Conference, India’s largest women’s organisation, which agitated for rights to education, owning property, remarriage and divorce. In 1962, Ayesha campaigned as a Swatantra Party candidate during the Lok Sabha elections. She won with what was then the biggest margin in Indian history, earning herself a spot in the Guinness World Records. When Indira Gandhi abolished the privy purses in 1970, Ayesha even served a long period of imprisonment at Tihar Jail.
Apart from all her widely recognised achievements, the book also highlights lesser known, complex aspects about a personality who was hailed for being one of the world’s most beautiful women. The author points out that several vital details have been omitted from her celebrated memoir, A Princess Remembers, many of which he brings to the fore through his book. For instance, few have probably heard that Ayesha championed those she liked but was ruthless towards those she didn’t.
Further, Ayesha’s mother, Indira Devi, was perhaps more legendary than her famous daughter. Fiercely independent, she was known as the most liberated Indian princess of the 20th century. The first person to wear chiffon saris, she owned more than a 100 pairs of shoes from Salvatore Ferragamo. Unfortunately, she became a widow at a young age, but is alleged to have had numerous love affairs (including, with Jai himself).
The book is also replete with fascinating anecdotes related to lavish festivities—and recreates the pomp, parties and pageantry of a bygone era. But behind all the opulence and luxury, there are untold stories of multiple wives, family feuds, adoption and succession. Moreover, every noteworthy asset linked to the Jaipur royal family has been the subject of lawsuits, a number of them dating back more than three decades.
In today’s day and age, while royal families may still be associated with their erstwhile glamour, they no longer retain the power and glory that they once commanded. Generational change is the greatest hope for members of the House of Jaipur, who are increasingly working towards reinventing their roles and relevance in 21st century India. Its legacy currently rests on the shoulders of Padmanabh, the millennial ‘maharaja’, who became the titular king at the age of 18 in 2016, succeeding his grandfather Bhawani Singh.