The Last of the Great Indian Maharanis


By Clive Kandel

The last of the great Indian Maharanis, Her Highness Maharani Shri Gayatri Devi Sahiba, Rajmata of Jaipur, died a few days ago. I had been introduced to her by a very close mutual friend, an Indian prince who had known the Rajmata since childhood. Although the Rajmata had been in poor health for some time, I was hoping against hope to see her just once more in London at the opening of the Maharajah exhibition at the V&A this coming October.

The Rajmata of Jaipur posing in front of a portrait of her mother, the Maharani of Cooch Behar.

Indians believe that jewels transcend earthly life and regard them more highly than cash. I have often used the phrase “I live like an Indian prince.” When money is needed, jewels are sold and when plentiful, bought. Although rarely acknowledged, it was their jewelry that enabled many of the Indian royals to either maintain a lifestyle or survive, sometimes both. I think the late Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda was the greatest example of this behavior.

Diamond, emerald bead necklace, Cartier London. 1928. Provenance: Maharani of Cooch Behar and thence by descent. Clive Kandel Collection

When I first met her in 1979, she opened a shoe box filled with Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels earrings and offered them to me as if they were chocolates. The one pair that I was allowed to buy were two inch-high Cartier London diamond pineapple earclips, each one centering a 20-carat round diamond. They were so heavy and large that wires were attached like spectacles to hook around the back of the ear and tuck under the lobe. Sita Devi simply needed to pay a bill, and the sale of one pair sufficed.

Ivory, Rock Crystal, Silver Swizzle Stick Stand, Cartier Paris S Department, 1933. Provenance: Maharani of Cooch Behar and thence by descent. Clive Kandel Collection.

An enormous amount of Art Deco Cartier jewels, clocks and objects had been slowly trickling out of India since the early 1960’s, when the Congress government had extreme left wing financial policies. It was obvious, to those who had the eye, that important jewels being sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s Geneva were Indian royal consignments. Most of these treasures now repose in the Fondation Cartier Collection. It was dangerous to keep cash or money in a bank and one could only travel with a paltry amount of funds. The Rajmata, like so many of her fellow royals and countrymen, made the necessary efforts to enable foreign travel, emigration and in her case, travel to use her London home.

White Silk, Diamond, Onyx and Pearl Purse, Cartier Paris, 1930. Provenance: Maharani of Cooch Behar and thence by descent. Clive Kandel Collection

The Jaipurs were no different from the Barodas, Nawanagars, Patialas and Kapurthalas. They used their Cartier jewels the way some use an American Express Centurion Card. The Rajmata’s mother, the Maharani of Cooch Behar but known as “Ma” to her family and friends, was very fond of the jeweler Ostertag. The Rajmata asked me to repair a twelve-piece Ostertag Art Deco agate, onyx and gemstone dressing table set that had belonged to “Ma.” How she took it with her and returned to India, only she knew. But then Sotheby’s was selling State solid silver Howdahs at this time, and I have still to understand how they were taken out of India.

Malachite, agate and ruby ring tray, Ostertag Paris 1930. Private Collection.

She has received so much praise that I feel redundant echoing what everyone already knows about this exceptional lady. She was a chiffon-enveloped cloud of demure, quiet, beautiful-eyed gentleness, who said exactly what needed to be said and not one word more. She brought a smile and left a smile.

Her Highness the Rajmata of Jaipur

An Indian TV news reporting service announcer in Jaipur said simply: “Our Queen has passed us by.”

Images Courtesy of Christies Images, Sotheby’s Images, V & A , British Museum,
and Clive Kandel Collection