Books

'The House of Jaipur' Maps the History, Glamour and Feuds of a Former Royal Family

Author John Zubrzycki’s new book is a nuanced view of the failings and contributions of Indian princes.

The sub-title of John Zubrzycki’s book is The Inside Story of India’s Most Glamorous Royal Family, so any reader could be forgiven for thinking it is yet another romance about royalty, fabulous wealth, beautiful people and the secrets of their personal lives, glamour and its dark side  masquerading as history. House of Jaipur is a popular history in that it is extremely readable, except when the reader gets too entangled in the internecine litigation which has plagued the family for the last 40 years.

There are stories of colourful people told colourfully. There is wealth beyond the dream of Croesus too. But The House of Jaipur is not romantic – it’s a serious history of one of the unique institutions, the Princely States, which enabled the British to hold India together. The Indian princes ruled over one-third of India’s population at the time of independence, therefore they played a crucial role in creating the nation which was partitioned at independence.

Zubrzycki undermines the myth that all the princes were feudal despots, rulers clinging to an outdated tradition of absolute monarchy with servile subjects bound to them by archaic religious ritualism. He brings out the extent to which the Jaipur Maharajas were bound to the British, yet at the same time had the freedom to govern the state as they would. He does write of the princes’ “antediluvian” mindset, yet he stresses how progressive the Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, was. His granddaughter Gayatri Devi, internationally renowned for her beauty, married the last member of the royal house of Jaipur to rule his state.

The Baroda Maharaja introduced numerous social reforms including banning untouchability, child marriage, bigamy and purdah, and making education for all school-age children compulsory. He sympathised with the independence movement and is renowned for turning his back on King Emperor George the Fifth at the 1911 Durbar, instead of stepping backwards after paying obeisance to him.

John Zubrzycki
The House of Jaipur
Juggernaut, 2020

The Jaipur family claims its history goes back to Kush, the son of Lord Ram, a genealogy Diya Kumari, the mother of the current Maharaja and a BJP MP, does not allow her constituents to forget. The Jaipur monarchy was rooted in Hinduism, yet Zubrzycki traces the rise of the family to their alliances with the Mughal rulers. Although this was an unequal relationship, the Jaipur rulers were allies. They were certainly not subservient, or as some portray them,  slaves. Man Singh I became the commander-in-chief of Akbar’s army.

In the middle years of the 19th century, it was in part because the two rulers, Jai Singh I and Ram Singh II, managed to keep outside interference at bay, that Jaipur enjoyed a cultural flowering. Free of interference and minimising the internecine struggles which had plagued the family and would do so in the future, the two rulers  “devoted their energies to creating dreamlike palaces, forts and extraordinary cityscapes, and patronizing the arts”.

Ram Singh’s successor Madho Singh II chose to ingratiate himself with the British. As a result, he was one of the few princes invited to King Edward VII’s coronation. Zubrzycki describes in detail all the arrangements made for his voyage to avoid being polluted by crossing the kala pani. These included six separate kitchens, one for his deity Gopalji, installed in the newly commissioned ship he was to travel in. But for all his position as a favourite of the British, Madho Singh made no secret of his disapproval of their way of life and their culture, and he discouraged his nobles from having anything to do with them. He remained a staunch, orthodox Rajput Hindu.

Most historians don’t pay much attention to the story of the princes in the independence movement. Zubrzycki says Gandhi and the Congress were not very interested in Rajasthan in the 1920s, but the British were. The anglicising of the House of Jaipur started when Madho Singh died without a son in 1922. His adopted heir Sawai Man Singh II, known in the family as Jai, was only ten years old so the British moved in to insure he grew up as they wanted him to grow up. They took a special interest in his sex life. His guardian recommended that to avoid repression and venereal diseases, from about the age of 15 Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II should “associate with a healthy young girl, and that in moderation”. But the pull of Rajput tradition proved too powerful and he was married to a princess from the Jodhpur Royal family at the age of 12. The British saw to it that they were not allowed to cohabit for several years.

The anglicising  programme continued, with Jai being sent to Mayo College modelled on the British public school system. That was followed by a year’s military training in Britain. The British were so concerned about keeping Jai on their side, and being able to keep his people on their side too, that the Viceroy, Lord Irwin, presided over his investiture on the Jaipur throne.

Also read: The Maharani’s Mercenaries and Family Disputes in the House of Jaipur

Zubrzycki considers Jai’s time undergoing military training in London as a turning point in his life. It was the time when released from the formalities and intrigues of Jaipur, he learnt to have “fun”. From then on, he led two separate existences. In Jaipur he was a Hindu monarch. On his annual extensive visits to Britain, he was welcomed into London’s high society preoccupied with parties and polo. The British authorities in India were worried that the Maharaja didn’t take his Indian responsibilities sufficiently seriously. But they didn’t have to worry about his politics. He remained unashamedly loyal to the King Emperor and joined the British army in the Second World War rather than the Indian army .

It was while having fun in Calcutta that Jai met Gayatri Devi, the daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. He was 19 and she just 12, but Zubrzycki says she developed a schoolgirl crush on him which grew into a full-blown romance. Ignoring warnings about Jai’s philandering, she became his third wife in 1940. The British disapproved of the marriage and refused to endorse it. Jai’s courtiers and the Rajput community opposed it too, because Gayatri Devi was not a Rajput.

In the end, the British divided and quit, leaving the princes who they had relied on to govern two-fifths of India’s land mass to the mercy of Sardar Patel and V.P. Menon. Zubrzycki describes their duplicitous dealings. They proposed that Jai should be the Rajpramukh or hereditary governor of Greater Rajasthan. But then they whittled down the offer removing the hereditary status and making Jai little more than any other governor. In 1956, Jawaharlal Nehru abolished the office altogether.

In 1970, Jai died playing polo in England. The vast crowds which turned out for his funeral showed that although he had been stripped of all power, he was still deeply respected by his people. His death was another turning point in the history of The House of Jaipur. One of the family friends quoted in the book had once told me, “it all fell apart when Jai died”. The family became embroiled in litigation over Jai’s property, with his widow Ayesha lined up against Jai’s son and successor, Bhawani Singh known as Bubbles. That was the beginning of seemingly never-ending litigation, which has kept more than 40 internecine cases still rumbling on in local courts.

Bhawani Singh, the last titular ruler of Jaipur. Photo: royaljaipur.in via Jaipur Royal Family

But the litigation has not been the end of The House of Jaipur. Although Bubbles’ attempt to establish a new role for a Maharaja in government failed when he was defeated as the Congress candidate for Jaipur in the 1989 general election,  Ayesha had a successful political career with the Swatantra Party. She swept Jaipur in her first of three successful parliamentary elections and earned the wrath, and Zubrzycki suggests the jealousy, of Indira Gandhi. He quotes Kushwant Singh as saying, “Indira couldn’t stomach a woman more good-looking than herself.” Indira insulted Gayatri Devi in parliament, set the taxmen on her and locked her up during the Emergency.

Gayatri Devi’s beauty was indeed legendary. Historian, restorer and hotelier Aman Nath described her beauty as “angelic’. Zubrzycki quotes the Economist describing her on her death as  “a princess, and a princess who could make Jackie Kennedy almost a frump”.

After Jai died, Gayatri Devi suffered the tragedy of her only child, an alcoholic son, dying as a result of a binge in London. She faced a challenge to his will from the family which led to her two grandchildren falling out with her, but she was eventually reconciled to them. She became recognised in India and internationally as the brand ambassador of the House of Jaipur, working for the empowerment of women and for the promotion of arts and culture.

When Gayatri Devi died aged 80 in 2009, almost four decades had elapsed since the House of Jaipur was stripped of all royal powers, prerogatives and privileges. but Zubrzycki describes in detail the regal procession led by two elephants, the crowds and the cries of ‘Maharani ki jai‘ which accompanied Gayatri Devi to her cremation.

Zubrzycki maintains that even the death of Gayatri Devi has not marked the end of the House of Jaipur. He says they now manage their estates and assets professionally. Under their direction, the City Palace has become one of the finest museums in India. Padmanab Singh, the present Maharaja, plays polo for India and is an international fashion model. Bubbles’ daughter 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 on the 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 in twenty first century democratic India.”

Mark Tully is a writer and columnist, and is the former India Bureau chief of the BBC.