Gayatri Devi, 90

Gayatri Devi, 90; Glamorous Indian Princess, Lawmaker

Sawai Man Singh II, maharajah of Jaipur, India, and Gayatri Devi, his third wife. Ms. Devi, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, served three terms in parliament before being jailed in a state of emergency.
Sawai Man Singh II, maharajah of Jaipur, India, and Gayatri Devi, his third wife. Ms. Devi, considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, served three terms in parliament before being jailed in a state of emergency. (1956 Photo By Associated Press)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gayatri Devi, 90, an Indian princess considered one of the world's most glamorous women and who became a prominent member of parliament in the 1960s before being imprisoned during a controversial state of emergency, died July 29 of stomach and respiratory problems at a hospital in Jaipur, India.

She was born in London on May 23, 1919, the fourth child of the ruler of Cooch Behar state in what is now eastern India. Brought up as a thoroughly Anglicized Indian princess, in a palace with 400 servants, she reportedly fell in love at 12 with the dashing maharajah of Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh II. He was 21 at the time and a champion polo player who was exceedingly rich and exceedingly handsome.

Ms. Devi also was an accomplished sportswoman. A year after meeting the maharajah, she shot her first panther. Years later, she told Time magazine that she killed 26 tigers before she retired her gun, because "I feel sorry for the animals."

Although the man she called "Jai" had two wives -- arranged for reasons of state -- he fell in love with the lovely tomboy, and the couple met secretly while she was a student in London. She also studied at India's Santiniketan University and in Switzerland.

When the princess and the maharajah announced their engagement in 1939, both families had misgivings. "The maharaja likes girls," Ms. Devi's brother warned her just before the wedding, "and just because he is marrying you, one must not expect him to give up all his girls."

The maharani-to-be had an answer: Because the maharajah was marrying her and not the other way around, "there would be no need for him to have other girls."

By all accounts, the marriage was successful. "The third maharani of Jaipur accepted her role as the maharaja's favorite but junior wife with good grace," the London Daily Telegraph noted. "She adjusted to the formality and restrictions of [royal life], but at the same time used her authority to bring the palace women forward into the 20th century."

In 1943, she opened in Jaipur the Gayatri Devi School for Girls, which became known as one of the finest schools in India.

When India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1947, royal titles were abolished and payments cut off to 600 royal families. Several of the royal households became destitute, but the former Jaipur royal family, among India's richest, remained wealthy, in part by converting some former palaces to hotels. In the 1990s, the family became embroiled in an internecine feud over an estate worth about $400 million.

Before and after independence, they summered in London, partied in Europe and entertained famous visitors, including first lady Jacqueline Kennedy (with whom Ms. Devi was often compared). With her lithe figure, dark eyes, full lips and ebony hair, she was a fashion-magazine staple, invariably resplendent in elegant chiffon saris, diamonds and pearl necklaces. Life magazine called her one of the most beautiful women in the world. Her allure included a throaty English accent that The Washington Post once noted, "makes her sound like an Indian Tallulah Bankhead."

In 1960, she joined the conservative Swatantra political party, formed a few years earlier in opposition to the socialism of Jawaharlal Nehru's ruling Congress Party. Two years later, Ms. Devi ran for parliament, even though her campaigning meant she no longer had time to drive out at 7 in the morning in her monogrammed white Jaguar and exercise her husband's 18 polo ponies.

She won by the largest landslide ever recorded and served for three terms before being arrested in 1975 and charged with tax irregularities.

She was one of more than a dozen members of parliament incarcerated during Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's 21-month state of emergency, imposed in response to escalating riots around the country and during which the prime minister suspended all laws and ordered mass arrests. Ms. Devi was in prison for six months but was never tried.

Afterward, she retired from politics, traveled the world and wrote her autobiography, "A Princess Remembers" (1996) with Santha Rama Rau. Ms. Devi claimed she never read the book all the way through, "because I've got nothing to learn from it." She also remained a polo fan and bred racehorses.

Her husband died in 1970 while umpiring a polo match in Cirencester, England. Her only son, Jagat Singh, died in 1998. Survivors include two grandchildren.

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