|Forsythia in Central Park. 3:45 PM. Photo: JH.|
|Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Grey and rainy; not warm.
Last night I had dinner with friends at the new Bar Italia on Madison Avenue and 66th Street. Bar Italia is a new venture of Hassan El Garrahy, whom the world knows from Cipriani and later Orsay, and Denis Franceschini, the former executive chef of Cipriani Worldwide.
Ayesha. I met Ayesha Jaipur at a little dinner at Lady Sarah Churchill’s  in Beverly Hills in 1980. I knew that she was a very famous woman by name on the international scene -- especially after she was jailed for several months as a political prisoner by Indira Ghandi. She was also the widow (and the third wife) of Jai, the late Maharajah of Jaipur.
That was all I knew. Thinking back on it, she was sixty-one years old at the time, a contemporary – two years older – of her hostess, our friend. She possessed the self-confidence of a beauty, but she wore her age matter-of-factly and with grace. It gave her an air of distinction that some might interpret as royal. Her dark hair now heavily streaked with grey, her makeup thorough but subtle against her pale tawny complexion, she was dressed in a chiffon sari of a pastel print of pinks, whites and bright green.
I had no idea of the splendor in which she had lived all her life, first as a daughter of the Maharajah of Cooch Behar and later as the Maharani of Jaipur (3rd wife). And there was nothing about her presence, despite her almost legendary persona, to indicate it.
Sarah had first met Princess Gayatri Devi (always known as Ayesha) forty years before in 1939 at a coming out ball given for Sarah at Blenheim by her father and mother the (10th) Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. During that evening which historians now refer to as “the last great party in England before the War,” the young maharajah’s having a dance with the 18 year old Lady Sarah alarmed the duchess. She demanded to know “who that black man dancing with Sarah” was.
When told that he was the Maharajah of Jaipur, (he and Ayesha were about to become engaged), the duchess was not impressed and remained alarmed. Sarah, who was very impressed – and charmed – by the handsome maharajah, years later loved telling the story as an example of how the world had changed in one lifetime even for the high and the mighty.
I got the feeling that night in California at dinner that Ayesha shared Sarah’s amusement of her mother’s “attitude.”
|Sawai Man Singh II, the Maharajah of Jaipur and his queen, Ayesha, circa 1944.|
|Ayesha died in July of 2009 just several weeks after her 90th birthday. Click here  for her obit in the Telegraph.|
|Ayesha in the late 1970s.|
|Today we are running the obit of Ayesha’s stepson -- also from the Telegraph -- Brigadier Sawi Bhawani Singh, the last Maharajah of Jaipur who died this past Sunday at 79. “Bubbles” as he was known, had succeeded his father in 1970 when he was 39. It was also the end of the era of maharajahs and their princely connection to political power. “Bubbles” Jaipur was shrewd enough to turn his inheritance (of several palaces) into a major financial asset that not only preserved but increased the family’s wealth.|
|Given the nickname "Bubbles" by his British nanny because of the gallons of champagne consumed at his birth, Bhawani Singh became 39th head of Kachwaha clan of Rajputs and Maharaja of Jaipur following the death of his father, Sawai Man "Jai" Singh II, at a polo match in Cirencester in 1970. The following year the princes' privy purses, and other privileges they had been guaranteed when they surrendered their powers at Independence, were abolished by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi through a constitutional amendment.
Maharaja of Jaipur
The Maharaja of Jaipur, flanked by guards, in his palace
Later on his son-in-law, Narendra Singh, reclaimed management control over some of the family properties, including the City Palace, and the Maharaja became a titular host for special events such as corporate-incentive nights. He was unconcerned when some of his peers turned up their noses at such commercialism: "I find an answer in our ability to make our heritage relevant to the changing times," he explained, dismissing his critics as mostly ageing contemporaries who "can't bring themselves to see reality and are still in the age of the 18th century. They are maharajas, and I am a businessman."
Sawai Bhawani Singh Bahadur was born on October 22 1931 to Sawai Man "Jai" Singh II (Maharaja of Jaipur from 1911) and Marudhar Kanwar of Jodhpur, the first of his father's three wives (who would die when her son was 13). Jai Singh was known for organising ostentatious parties, and the birth of his eldest son, the first male heir born to a reigning Maharaja of Jaipur for generations (all others, including Sawai Man Singh himself, were adopted), was the cause for lavish celebrations. The fountains of the royal palaces in Jaipur flowed with champagne.
In her memoirs A Princess Remembers, the Crown Prince's glamorous stepmother, the Maharani Gayatri Devi (known to her friends as "Ayesha"), recalled the rarefied life of the Maharaja's court. A photograph from 1961 shows her and her husband with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh after an elephant-back tiger shoot, and as Maharani she slept in an ivory bed, with a 14-skin leopard rug. Her diamond-studded wedding to the Maharaja in 1940 was described as the most expensive in the world by the Guinness Book of Records and Lord Mountbatten, India's last Viceroy, later remarked that he could not think of a "more striking and attractive couple than Jai and Ayesha when they married".
|The Rambagh Palace, Jaipur, Rajasthan, the former residence of the Maharajah of Jaipur, now a luxury Taj Palace Hotel. A favorite of celebrities and VIPs across the world, it is considered one of the best hotels in the world. Fit for a maharajah.|
|The Crown Prince was educated at the Doon School, Dehradun, and later at Harrow. As a young man he served in the Indian Army, becoming commanding officer of the 10th Parachute Regiment in 1968. During the 1971 war with Pakistan, he led his troops deep into Pakistani territory, attacking and destroying several enemy posts. During the fighting, he was said to have duped Pakistani troops into believing that a formation of Indian tanks was advancing on their position when in reality the vehicles were revving jeeps. For this, he was awarded the Mahavir Chakra, India's equivalent of the Military Cross. He was promoted to the rank of brigadier in 1974.
Indira Gandhi's rewriting of the Indian constitution in 1971 signalled a new and ugly phase in Indian politics. During the 1960s, the Maharaja's formidable stepmother, Ayesha, had joined the anti-Congress Swatantra Party and, in 1962, won a seat in the Lok Sabha in the world's largest electoral landslide. In July 1975 both she and her stepson were arrested and incarcerated in Tihar Jail near Delhi, one of the worst prisons in India.
|Rambagh Palace, Jaipur.|
|This was the start of the State of Emergency period when Indira Gandhi suspended all laws and made mass arrests on the ground that the security of the state was under threat. No serious charges were ever laid against either the Maharaja or his stepmother, and after protests from Lord Mountbatten and senior Indian Army officers, he was released on bail. Ayesha, styled Rajmata after the death of her husband, was freed a few months later.
In Jaipur, the Maharaja continued to behave very much in the old Indian princely spirit – if not with quite the same regal opulence. He held regular durbars at which people could come for help and advice and took a full traditional part in Hindu festivals. Many villagers in Rajasthan continued to regard him as a king.
Like his father a keen polo player (until heart problems forced him out of the saddle), the Maharaja served as president of Rajasthan Polo Club and, during his retirement, as Indian High Commissioner to Brunei from 1994 to 1997.
In 1966 he had married Princess Padmini Devi of Sirmour, the daughter of his father's polo-playing friend Rajendra Singh. However, partly as a result of his support for Congress, relations with his stepmother and stepbrothers were cool for many years and there were frequent disputes over their inheritances. In 2002 the Maharaja, who had a daughter but no son, stunned his family by announcing his intention to adopt his three-year-old grandson, Padmanabh Singh, as his heir, overriding the claims of his stepbrothers.
The Maharaja is survived by his wife and his daughter.