— JASMEEN DUGAL
Part of my fascination for Maharani Gayatri Devi, the central protagonist of the book, was her classic beauty and sartorial style. She was a beauty to behold in her pastel chiffon saris, string of pearls or emeralds and oversized sunglasses. And, so, I ordered the advance copy of John Zubrzycki's 'The House of Jaipur.'
The sub-title, 'The Inside Story of India's Most Glamorous Royal Family', may lead readers to feel it is an expose on fabulous wealth, beautiful people and secrets of life behind the palace doors. But it's deeper than its cover suggests; a magnificent celebration of the regal history of Jaipur, the book spans the final decades of the British Raj up to present day, and paints a picture of how centuries-old feudal traditions collided with social and political change when the princely states were abolished. ''Though many of them still retain a glamour and mystique that helps them win parliamentary and state elections, the power and glory that was once their birthright is no more…''
Though the book is deeply researched about the dynasty, central to the narrative is the love story between Maharani Gayatri Devi and Sawai Man Singh II, known to their friends as Jai and Ayesha. While playing polo in Calcutta, Jai met Ayesha, daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, who later became his third wife in 1940. ''Ayesha found her introduction to palace life with its ancestral traditions and rules of purdah frightening and oppressively formal… aware of the strain that purdah was having on his wife, Jai made sure that they socialise with his teammates and their wives after polo matches… They were described as India's golden couple, its answer to John and Jackie Kennedy…''
In 1970, Jai died playing polo in England. The crowds which turned out for his funeral showed that though he had been stripped of power, he was respected by his people. His death was a turning point in the history of The House of Jaipur. ''Behind the facade of Rambagh Palace balls, of garden parties with visiting celebrities at Lilly Pool, and the feigned acceptance of the inevitability of royalty in retreat, not all was right in the house of Jaipur… Most veteran Jaipur watchers trace the evolution from royal love-in to litigation to Jai's death… When Jai was alive he completely controlled her and them, so everybody got on. The moment he died, the whole thing splintered…. At the heart of the quarrel was whether Jai's estate belonged to the whole family or to Bubbles alone. Family custom and the principle of primogeniture dictated that as the eldest son he should be the sole inheritor, insisted Bubbles. But under the Hindu Undivided Family Act, all of Jai's offspring had the right to an equal share of his fortune… At this point Bubbles's wife, Padmini Devi, who had been listening to the conversation, interrupted: 'The estate doesn’t belong to anybody else. It's very simple. Let the court decide…’ They had a daughter, Diya, but no son, raising the possibility of the estate going to Diya and her future husband — a man who might have no connection to Jaipur. Now that princely titles had been abolished, they were faced with the reality that there would never be another formally recognized Maharaja of Jaipur… Although Indian law allowed a daughter to inherit an estate, this was anathema to people who still lived by the traditions of a royal court… Now that princely titles had been abolished, they were faced with the reality that there would never be another formally recognized Maharaja of Jaipur…''
When Gayatri Devi died aged 80 in 2009, four decades had elapsed since the House of Jaipur was stripped of royal powers, prerogatives and privileges. Zubrzycki maintains that even her death has not marked the end of the House of Jaipur. ''Padmanabh's presence at many of his mother [Diya Kumari]'s rallies were viewed as his political baptism as he declared 'Times have changed and you can be in politics only if people elect you to be their representative…' Yet, the assets at stake — palaces, jewels, share portfolios, trusts and antiques — steadily increase in value… the authenticity of Ayesha's will is also being challenged before the district court in Jaipur. And on and on it goes…''
Meanwhile… The City Palace has become one of the finest museums in India. Padmanab Singh, [Pacho to his friends], the present Maharaja, plays polo for India and is an international model. Diya Kumari is a BJP MP. So, Zubrzycki concludes his history of the House with these words, ''In politics, at the polo ground and even at the fashion catwalk, the house of Jaipur has begun to map out a new set of traditions, deftly harnessing their royal aura as they reinvent their roles and their relevance…'' This is just a very short glimpse into the book… do buy it for a fascinating insight into the age-old customs and traditions of regal Jaipur and how it has evolved to carve out a progressive new role.
The House of Jaipur
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