‘Purdah to Parliament’ A Portrayal of Gayatri Devi,
The Maharani of Jaipur in her Autobiography
A Princess Remembers

D. Rebeca Rani, Ph.D Scholar, Kakatiya University, Warangal, (Andhra Pradesh) - India

Women’s Autobiography

The autobiography genre has received serious scholarly attention only in the last fifty years and much of this work has focused on the writings of men rather than women. Early scholars focused almost exclusively on the lifestyle and the perceived moral state of the author and not on the form and style of the genre itself. As Estella C. Jelinek writers, "Even when women’s autobiographies are given some scant attention in studies, social bias against the condition or the delineation of their lives seems to predominate over critical objectivity." However, recent scholarship suggests that women possessed a unique mode of self-representation and set of justifications for their self-histories and that these perceptions have evolved from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century.

The nineteenth century women’s autobiographies reveal about how women perceived themselves, their selfdefined gender ideology, the issues of particular concern in their lives, and factual information about their accomplishments and lifestyles. Recent scholarship has focused on the style and structure of autobiographies written by women, the way in which the writers order and relate the events of their lives, the way the women interpret the events, and the tone of their narration. Women’s autobiographical writing differed from men’s in several regards. First, women authors felt that they had to defend their decision to write about themselves. Their autobiographies provide information about the private family sphere which is often unavailable in other official sources.

In the early 19th and 20th century, India was a country of Kings and queens. We find many autobiographies written by Princess and Maharanis. Most of them were well-educated. Some of them had gone their education in European countries too. Writing in English was not a problem for them. They were quite familiar with the western way. But most of them had lived behind the purdah. Most of the autobiographies of the Maharanis focus on their lives in the kingly shadow of their husbands. They participated actively in social and political activities at their times but never appeared ambitious enough to hold independent positions. Right from their childhood they were trained to be submissive and to perform their duty.

Gayatri Devi’s autobiography A Princess Remembers is a land mark in the autobiographical writings by Indian Maharanis. It is the story of a queen of Jaipur who gave up ‘purdah’ to join politics and won the elections.


Early Life      

The Maharani Gayatri Devi was born in London on May 23, 1919 at eight o’clock in the morning. According to Hindu astrologers the Maharani’s auspicious letter was ‘G’ and was named Gayatri. To her friends and family she is more commonly known as Ayesha. According to the Maharani, her mother, the Maharani Indira Devi, was reading a Rider Haggard’s novel and decided that she would name her child Ayesha, after the heroine. A few days after the birth of Gayatri Devi, an Islamic friend of Indira Devi reminded her that Ayesha is a Muslim name, but since the family was already calling her Ayesha; the name remained.

Born into the royal family of Cooch Behar, a princely state in North Bengal, she studied at an Indian university and at colleges in England. Maharani Gayatri Devi (as she was styled after marriage) was a particularly enthusiastic in riding a horse. She was an excellent and an able Polo player. She was a good shot and enjoyed many days out on ‘Shikars’. Gayatri Devi was everything you would expect of a royal — willful, capricious, demanding, autocratic, beguiling, extrovert, oh, and definitely mercurial. She was raised in a sumptuous palace staffed with five hundred servants. She shot her first panther when she was twelve.

Her childhood years were shaped by the influence of two remarkable women: one was her mother, the Maharani of Cooch Behar, who ruled the state as Regent for more than a decade after the death of her father in 1922; the other was her maternal grandmother, the Maharani of Baroda, whose husband transformed Baroda into the most advanced princely state in India. These two formidable queens saw to it that Gayatri Devi was brought up as a thoroughly anglicised Indian princess with strong ideas of her own.

When Gayatri Devi was 12 she fell for the most glamorous young man in India, the Maharaja of Jaipur, then 21 years old. He was not only exceedingly rich and handsome but also a nine-handicap polo player, leading his Jaipur polo team to victory in every tournament they entered. Maharaja Man Singh already had two wives, both married for reasons of state, but this did not prevent him from becoming captivated by this beautiful and spirited tomboy princess who was quite unlike the more orthodox Rajput ladies whom he knew.

When Gayatri Devi was sent to the Monkey Club finishing school in Knightsbridge, they met secretly and became unofficially engaged. Their romance aroused opposition on all sides, and when in 1939 they let it be known that they intended to marry, there was consternation in princely circles. In 1940 she became the third wife of Sawai Man Singh II, the Maharaja of Jaipur, one of the largest princely states of Rajasthan, in the north-west of India. She told him that she would not live in purdah, the secluded life still at that time common among the women of Indian royal families. The maharaja readily agreed.

Life in Purdah

In the Cooch Behar family, it was feared that Gayatri Devi was condemning herself to a life in purdah in a feudal state that would destroy her lively personality.

In the event, the marriage was a great success. The third Maharani of Jaipur accepted her role as the Maharaja’s favourite but junior wife with good grace. She adjusted to the formality and restrictions of life in a Rajput royal zanana, but at the same time used her authority to bring the palace women forward into the 20th century.

Sometimes she remarks upon how she had to spend some of her time in purdah, and how it was so awful and shocking because she’d been raised by such a liberal mother. Gayatri Devi had her first taste of purdah when she was on her way to Calcutta. Her coach was surrounded by canvas screen. Her car was with a curtain separating the driver from the passenger seats, entirely protected from the view of any passer-by.

Maharani Gayatri Devi observed purdah only on occasions where there might be older and more orthodox princess among the guests. Her husband didn’t want to put her in the embarrassing position of being the only Maharani to show her face in public. He said "There is no question of your remaining in purdah all your life. After a year or so when people gradually get used to the idea, you can drop purdah all together." But whenever she went out of the city palace, she always rode in a purdah car and there she had to behave like a queen. In another part of the palace, there were zenana quarters where Jai’s two wives and other ladies lived stictly out of the male gaze.

Before their marriage Jai had told Gayatri Devi to encourage the women of Jaipur to come out of purdah to at least some degree. He told her that he hoped eventually to break down the purdah system in Jaipur. He tried giving parties to which he invited the State Officials and ministers asking them to bring their wives, but very few women came. They maintained purdah quite strictly.

When Gayatri Devi and Jai’s second Her Highness arrived at Udaipur station, the railway carriage was shunned into a special purdah siding. In Jaipur their purdah cars merely had darkened glass in the windows replacing the curtains of earlier years. After the deaths of Dowarger Maharani, Jai’s first Her Highness and Second Her Highness, the zenana quarters gradually diminished. One of her first big achievements as the Maharani of Jaipur was to start the first school for girls in the city. A patron of equestrian sport she was often seen at polo fields in Jaipur and Delhi Gayatri Devi supported various trusts, a stud farm and, of course, the legendary Maharani Gayatri Devi College, the institution she started as a young bride to encourage noblemen to send their daughters to school.

Much prettier than today’s alleged beauties, in her heydays she, was considered by Vogue to be amongst the Ten Most Beautiful Women in the World. She is also chosen as the fourth most beautiful woman of the century 

Political career 

When India became independent and her husband surrendered the powers he had enjoyed under the British, Devi disapproved of the direction the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, took the country in. She thought Nehru’s socialism, particularly his policy of nationalisation, was restricting the freedom of Indians and stifling their initiative. In the 1962 general election, with her husband’s permission, she stood for the Swatantra party, from Jaipur. Swatantra means freedom, and the party, which was mainly supported by businessmen and former princes, advocated free-market economics.

Gayatri Devi ran for Parliament and won the constituency in the Lok Sabha in the world’s largest landslide, winning 192,909 votes out of 246,516 cast, confirmed by the Guinness Book Of Records. She continued to hold this seat on 1967 and 1971, Swatantra Party of C.Rajagopalachari the second Governor-General of Independent India running against the Congress Party.

The Maharani is candidly frank about her lack of awareness of India and its problems. But as an MP she added in her bit by running grain shops at cost prices, building educational institutions in rural Rajasthan. Otherwise politically, the Maharani was more of a novice getting her grips in Parliament often slighted (for her royal background) during Parliamentary proceedings by seasoned veterans like Jawaharlal Nehru. The 15 years and three consecutive parliaments during which Devi represented Jaipur were turbulent times in India. In her first year, China and India went to war. When the leader of the Swatantra party in parliament, who was a professor, criticised Nehru’s China policy, he replied haughtily: "You profess to know more than you do." To the amazement of the house and the press, Devi, a very new and junior member, piped up: "If you had known anything, we wouldn’t be in this mess."

In 1975, when Gandhi declared a state of emergency, Devi was confined in Delhi’s notorious Tihar jail accused of allegedly violating the new tax laws. Devi was in jail for five months. While she was there she began plans for starting a school. She believed in girls’ education passionately and founded several schools during her life. One of them is the renowned Maharani Gayatri Devi public school in Jaipur. When she came out of jail, Devi wrote an autobiography, A Princess Remembers (1976), co-authored by Santha Rama Rau. She left politics saying she did not feel she was able to do much for her constituency. But she continued to take an active interest in Jaipur and was deeply distressed by the unplanned, ramshackle development of the historic city.

Gayatri Devi moved up beyond her traditional veil with a beautiful charm which let the world to recognize her elegance. She died on 29 July 2009 in Jaipur at the age of 90. But her legacy and aristocracy will remain eternal.


Works Cited

Devi, Gayatri. A Princess remembers; the memoirs of Maharani of Jaipur, Rupa & Co.., 1995.

Kanwar, Dharmendar. Rajmata Gayatri Devi—: enduring grace. Lustre Press, Roli Books, 2004.

Moore, Lucy. Maharanis: The Extraordinary Tale of Four Indian Queens and Their Journey from Purdah to Parliament. Penguin Group US, 2006.

Devi, Gayatri.(Maharani of Jaipur) Santha Rama Rau. A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur J. B. Lippincott Company, 1976.

Lord, John. The Maharajahs Hutchinson & Company, 1972.

White,Terence Hanbury, Kurth Sprague. The maharajah, and other stories. Macdonald, 1981.

Dharmendar, Kanwar. Last Queen of Jaipur: The Legendary Life of Maharani Gayatri Devi. White Star Publishers, 2010.


This paper was presented in 9th Internatinal Writers Festival-India (An International Concference of Poets, Writers & Scholarsw) held at Nellore (Andhra Pradesh) on 9-10 November, 2013


(Published in Kafla Intercontinental - Jan-April 2014)