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India’s most glamorous ruling family were consumed by bitterness


BOOK OF THE WEEK

HOUSE OF JAIPUR    

by John Zubrzycki (C Hurst £25, 288 pp)

When it comes to early 20th-century India, the statistics of wealth and pageantry always astonish.

After reading this saga of the upheavals that have rocked the House of Jaipur over the past 100 years, my head is full of 90-strong processions of jewelled elephants, streets lined with 300 emerald-bedecked nobles, palaces with 500 servants, and maharajas arriving at polo grounds bringing 60 ponies, each with its own uniformed groom.

At Mayo College, the elite Indian boarding school attended by Jai Singh, the handsome young Maharaja of Jaipur in the 1930s, one fledgling maharaja arrived for his first term with 200 servants for whom a special village had to be built.

John Zubrzycki has penned a new book exploring the House of Jaipur over the past 100 years. Pictured: Ayesha, Maharani of Jaipur

Jai himself came with an army of servants. He’d been married off to wife number one aged 11 and was allowed a conjugal visit once a fortnight in his final year.

In 1971, the royal family of Jaipur had to deal with the trauma of losing their status, when all titles, privileges and privy purses associated with the princely states were abolished by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India.

Disastrous family mismanagement meant they also faced fathers dying intestate, unclear wills, early deaths from alcohol and seething jealousy among multiple wives and children, plus fighting among grandchildren and decades-long legal battles over inheritance and property, some of which are still being fought.

It needs a skilful author to clarify the ugly mess of it all, and John Zubrzycki does an impressive job of it here, building up a memorable picture of a glittering family brought to its knees.

Long before the downfall, into that princely 1930s world came a 12-year-old girl called Ayesha, daughter of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar in the east.

She fell madly in love with Jai after watching him play polo in Calcutta. He proposed to her in 1936. She was 16 and staying at The Dorchester in London; he was in England winning polo matches, flirting with Joan Eyres Monsell, having an affair with Virginia Cherrill (who was still married to Cary Grant), and befriending Louis Mountbatten.

Ayesha escaped her minders and made secret calls to Jai from a phone box in Pont Street.

The royal family of Jaipur had to deal with the trauma of losing their status in 1971, when all titles, privileges and privy purses associated with the princely states were abolished by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India. Pictured: The last Maharaja of Jaipur and palace guards

The royal family of Jaipur had to deal with the trauma of losing their status in 1971, when all titles, privileges and privy purses associated with the princely states were abolished by the 26th Amendment to the Constitution of India. Pictured: The last Maharaja of Jaipur and palace guards

She became Jai’s wife number three, and spent the first year of marriage in purdah along with his other two wives. She was shocked to find a store room packed with crates of specially imported Evian water for the governess’s dogs, but that was nothing compared with Jai’s fleet of Cadillacs, Bentleys, Buicks and Rolls-Royces.

Ayesha is really the central character of this fascinating book: a woman of great beauty who treasured India’s traditions while also embracing the modern. She smoked and wore slacks instead of a sari, and she and Jai were great friends with Truman Capote, Frank Sinatra and later the Kennedys.

953 

Number of windows in Jaipur’s Palace of Winds

On August 12, 1947, Jai was obliged to sign the Instrument of Accession, handing over control of his state’s external affairs to the Dominion of India. The more he lost status, the more Jai plunged into the world of polo, pleasure and foreign travel.

He became India’s Ambassador in Spain but was rather lazy. Ayesha entered Indian politics, campaigning from village to village in the heat and dust as a candidate for the anti-Congress Swatantra Party in 1962.

She won by a landslide of 175,000 votes — a majority so vast it got into the Guinness Book of Records.

Jai died in 1970 after falling off his horse on the polo field in Cirencester. Cue a 5 km-long funeral procession in Jaipur.

Ayesha was a terribly lax mother, and that didn’t do her and Jai’s only son Jagat (born 1949) any good. He was sent to Ludgrove and Harrow and became friends with Mick Jagger, Imran Khan and Mark Shand, but he drank and was kicked off a plane for carrying a knife and getting into an altercation with an air hostess. He went straight to the family flat in Cadogan Square, drank too much in a Chelsea pub, got into a fight with locals, was found unconscious the next morning, and died in a coma in hospital aged 47, in 1997. He’d married and divorced a Thai princess called Priya, who would soon enter the murky fray of family disputes.

HOUSE OF JAIPUR by John Zubrzycki (C Hurst £25, 288 pp)

HOUSE OF JAIPUR by John Zubrzycki (C Hurst £25, 288 pp)

The question was: did Jai’s estate belong to the whole of his family, or to Bubbles, his eldest son by an earlier wife, alone?

Jai’s dying intestate caused decades of nightmares for the family. Who was now the Leading Lady — Bubbles’s wife Padmini, a woman of steely determination who vowed to defend the rights of her daughter and grandchildren, or the dowager Ayesha? Ayesha and Bubbles, who’d been close in the 1970s, now found themselves on opposite sides in a bitter family battle for inheritance.

Jagat’s children Devraj and Lalitya were also horrified to discover that he had left everything he owned not to them but to Ayesha, their grandmother.

Before her death in 2009, Ayesha did sign a settlement dividing everything equally between the three of them.

But to their dismay, they realised that her will lacked detail about exactly what the estate comprised. Even now, the authority of Ayesha’s will is being challenged by the district judge in Jaipur, and the ownership of the Jai Mahal Palace is up before India’s Supreme Court.

The moral of the story: declare your assets and don’t die intestate.



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