Motoring in the first half of the 1900s was popularised in equal measure by the British and the rich-and-famous of Indian society, particularly the princes of the native states. The ruling family of Cooch Behar being one of the most influential among them, not only bought and used cars but sponsored car trials by foreign manufacturers to prove suitability of their cars in the Indian climate and environment. In the Durbar of 1911 in Delhi for example, it was this family which provided crucial introductions to wealthy Indians so that car companies could start selling vehicles to buyers even if they were located far away from the city.
Cars were a major break from tradition as they replaced the horse and the elephant, both signs of wealth and royalty in Indian culture. As a result, they had bodywork like a horse carriage. Cars used by ladies were called ‘purdah’ cars as they had curtains as screens in modern cities like Kolkata while in areas outside cities, they would have wooden screen boxes all round for passengers (like the hackney carriages).
As the younger daughter of the ruling prince of this family, Gayatri Devi, more popularly known as Ayesha to her family circle, practically grew up in cars. Her father had a collection of two seater sports cars apart from the usual collection of Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost cars. These cars were kept at various family residences in Kolkata (called then Woodlands, now commercially developed), the palace of Cooch Behar and residences in England (in London and in the countryside).
As one the accompanying photos show, the cars at Woodlands include the Daimler, DeDion and Standard makes, so popular in the 1920s.
Gayatri Devi soon turned out to be an excellent driver, often seen driving around the town in her own vehicle, with enough expertise and skill that astonished all those who saw her. Her first car, also pictured here, was an Austin with a closed body finished in shining black.
The garage at Woodlands in Kolkata was under an Englishman, Mr Davidson, reportedly the first man to ever drive a car in the city. He knew all about cars and through conversation and personal example, made sure that motoring became one of the major passions of the princess.
Romance on four wheels
Gayatri Devi went on to become the wife of Jai Singh, the then Maharaja of Jaipur state, a renowned polo player who was equally passionate about cars. His green Rolls-Royce cars with the crest of Jaipur were famous in Kolkata. Their courtship days were partly in the city and also in London. They would meet at famous landmarks like the Dorchester Hotel or the Berkeley Hotel and drive around London in turns. The car they used for their meetings was a Bentley, much loved by both. At other times, she would leave her apartment on Pont Street and usually meet up at a small park nearby called Wilton Crescent.
Some years later, Jai Singh was injured in a flying accident and while recuperating in Kolkata, he was driven around by Gayatri Devi in his newest acquisition, a two-seater sports Bentley. This romantic courtship continued till 1940, when the two got married.
Their wedding (famous because several hundred items made up the menu, among other things) was marked by the most unique of gifts. Since the guests knew how fond both were of cars, and given the fact they were wonderful drivers, they received several cars as gifts. Among the most famed was a beautiful black Bentley gifted by the Nawab of Bhopal. The car had created a sensation when it arrived at Kolkata and everyone admired the extremely coveted car. One can only imagine the sensation caused when it was handed over as a present. It was used for many years thereafter by the car crazy couple.
Gayatri Devi wrote, “When he presented it to me, he asked tentatively if I really liked it or whether perhaps, I might prefer a piece of jewellery. I told him in no uncertain terms that there was not a fraction of doubt in my mind (that I preferred the car)”.
Her brothers were left speechless and even her husband started using his older blue Bentley less and less and often ran off with her black Bentley, she complained. The second grand car presented to her was no less desirable: a two-seater 12-cylinder Packard by one of the nobles of Jaipur.
Being brought up in Bengal with virtually no segregation of women or purdah, the princess received a shock soon after. The car carrying the couple was surrounded by screens at Howrah station and she had to walk while maintaining purdah, to the train. At Jaipur, a similar enclosed tunnel of fabric led from the train to the car to go to the palace. At both ends, the passenger compartment of the chauffeur driven cars used were completely screened off on four side so she could only hear but not see anything outside. In other words, it appeared she would have to give up driving altogether!
Breaking the purdah
Unwilling to quit driving, she used every chance she could to get back to driving and used that excuse to escape the purdah system in Jaipur once and for all. For example, she shocked everyone by driving from Ooty to Bangalore all by herself to meet her husband. She used similar excuses to drive a car in Kolkata, visiting important people or doing chores that were usually done by staff members. Her love of motoring was so great, and her driving such a revolutionary step that it induced more and more wealthy Indian families to break the rules and move ahead with the times. There were dangers. On one occasion she was driving her husband in a Packard at great speed when they ran into a group of donkeys squatting on the road. The cars’ lights were damaged and luckily that was all.
On another occasion, she heard a small boy had been injured and drove him to hospital but her arrival was a major shock to the hospital staff. They had never seen a lady ambulance driver before!
Social change is often triggered by individuals who dare to break conventions because of their firm conviction and that gives them courage to go against society. In case of Gayatri Devi, her passion for cars provided that impetus. Lady drivers all over the country owe her a great debt, more so because she dared to change the rules in the conservative society of India.