“Bubbles” was a great polo patron, the son of one of the most celebrated polo couples in history, and the leader of the Rajputs, who hold a special place in my heart as my husband, the third generation polo player Mahmood Khan, is a Rajput. I am currently at work on a book about the Rajmata, Gayatri Devi, to be published in 2012.
Bubbles obituary from the London Telegraph follows. Brigadier Sawai Bhawani Singh, who died on Sunday aged 79, was the last titular Maharaja of Jaipur and the flamboyant owner of some of Rajasthan’s most spectacular palaces.
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.
In 1958 Jai Singh had become the first of the princes in Rajasthan to turn his principal residence, the Rambagh Palace, into a luxury hotel. The palace was eventually leased in 1972 to the Indian hospitality company the Taj Group. Subsequently several more of the family’s palaces also became five-star hotels. In consequence Sawai Bhawani Singh, who counted Bill Clinton and Mick Jagger among his friends, became one of the richest of India’s maharajas.
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 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.
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 1980, however, Singh threw his weight behind Mrs Gandhi and, in 1989, at the request of her son Rajiv, unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections for Congress against the popular Bharatiya Janata Party leader Girdhari Lal Bhargava. He then retired from active politics and devoted his time to social, business and cultural activities.
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.