The expectations of widowhood did not sit well with Ayesha[Gayatri Devi]. Her mother [Indira Devi, maharani of Cooch Behar] had shunned all conventions when Jit[Indira Devi’s husband, the maharaja of Cooch Behar] died, rejecting any notion of living the austere life of a widow, such as renouncing worldly pleasures, giving away her chiffon saris and not wearing jewellery. There was no question Ayesha would follow any other course. Although she was the rajmata, there was no let-up in her travels, her obsession with horses or her entertaining. In 1979, she told the American journalist Jane Leveret that the end of princely India had been a liberating experience. ‘I did in fact gain my own independence. Before I had had a very high position as Maharani with restrictions. It was like I was a queen, I couldn’t wander around on my own, everything was rather official. Now one is free to do as one likes,’ she said, omitting to mention that she had a dozen staff at her beck and call to make that freedom possible.
The writer Ann Morrow describes going to a party at Lily Pool in the mid-1980s, where the guests hovered in an air of anticipation, unable to concentrate on their conversations as they awaited Ayesha’s fashionably late arrival. ‘Suddenly the low buzz of conversation stops, and all eyes turn as the hostess flutters into the room.’ She wears a blue-green chiffon sari. Her only jewellery is two large diamond rings. ‘She is svelte, exotic and compelling, and there is a moment of absolute silence.’ As the silence dissolves and the atmosphere zings, ‘she flits round, chats about “the ball in New Orleans,” her fillies “at the stud farm” in America and the Arc de Triomphe, wafting about in a flirty conspiracy of fun’. At the end of the night she farewells her guests with kisses and promises to ‘see you in Washington’. Suddenly she vanishes. ‘In the morning she is leaving for Paris to mesmerise the French.’
Lily Pool is featured in the World of Interiors and Inside Outside. Ayesha doesn’t mind ‘that swallows dirty my lampshades and chipmunks [squirrels] nibble the fringes of my curtains’. She brings glamour to Jaipur. She revives the city’s famous blue pottery and attends board meetings of the MGD School. Outwardly at least, an atmosphere of convivial familial solidarity wafts through the bougainvillea and past the peacocks that amble about in the garden. Mickey’s [Gayatri Devi’s stepdaughter] daughter, Bambi, is minister for tourism in Gujarat and has a son studying hospitality in Switzerland. Bubbles [Gayatri Devi’s stepson Bhawani Singh] has a beautiful daughter named Diya. Joey is married to Rani Vidya Devi, the daughter of Raj Kumar Rajendra Singh of Jubbal, and they have a son named Ajai. Pat and his wife, Devika, also have a son, Vijit.[Joey and Pat are also Gayatri Devi’s stepsons] Ayesha spends her summers in England watching the polo at Smith’s Lawn and Cowdray Park. She makes sure she returns in time for her pink-themed party on the roof of Lily Pool that coincides with the full moon festival of Sharad Purnima. ‘We are the real India. The people trusted us for so long,’ she assures Morrow, who laps up her statement uncritically, mesmerized by the perfumed, perfectly formed princess in front of her.
The closed world of celebrity and constant adoration skews Ayesha’s view of herself – something that comes out starkly in her memoir. ‘When the flag goes up at Lily Pool people know I am at home,’ she writes, as if the whole of Jaipur was waiting and watching for her return from another season of polo and parties in Europe. When it came to image-making, no Indian royals came close to her. She was India’s most photographed princess and one of the world’s iconic beauties – yet she pretended to be oblivious about her reputation and indifferent about her looks.
Asked once by a women’s magazine to reveal her beauty secrets, she retorted: ‘Tell them I drink a bottle of whiskey a day, and I dye my hair black with boot polish.’