The queen and the first lady

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The Late Rajmata Gayatri Devi and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis are perhaps two of the most iconic women of their time. Not only hailed for their unique sense of style all over the world, but these women were also there to make a difference in society. The photograph was taken when Jackie Kennedy as First Lady of the United States of America, came to India on a cultural tour at the urging of John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India. The photograph was taken by Life Magazine photojournalist, Arthur Rickerby. He was a staff photographer with them for the last ten years of his life.

“An image is a social fact that may be applied as evidence to the task of historical or social analysis.”2 A prominent believer of this analysis was the Art Historian Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968). He called the application of this analysis iconology, i.e, “the study of the relationship between an image and the culture of ideas, values and other cultural forms that make up the world.”3 What I understand from Panofsky's iconology is that one must try and identify every symbolic representation in an image, the deeper reason behind why the image is in front of us at all.

This photograph makes for an extremely interesting analysis because of the two ladies pictured in it. The lady on the left is the late Queen of Jaipur, Gayatri Devi. Once considered one of the most beautiful women in the world by Vogue magazine, Gayatri Devi was the third wife of the Maharaja of Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh II. She was known to have an exuberant personality and was never really like the more orthodox Rajput women. Initially, her parents were concerned if she would be able to settle into the very strict and formal environment for women at Jaipur, but Gayatri Devi was never one to give up. She was aware of the restrictions that applied to women such as constantly being under purdah3 but managed to create a balance for her duties as the wife of the ruler, as well as start projects related with women's empowerment.

While the other women in court wore traditional ghagra cholis4 and traditionally dyed sarees, Gayatri Devi started a whole new trend of wearing printed French chiffon sarees and pearl strings around the neck in place of the more commonly worn gold jewelry. With her classical beauty, shortly cut hair and different way of dressing, Gayatri Devi literally came to signify all that was fashionable and stylish.

On the right in the photograph is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who was the First Lady of USA from 1961 up till her husband, John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963. Extremely loved by the public, Jackie was known worldwide for her “sense of style, gracious personality and ability to speak numerous languages...”5 She won the respect of many people because of the dignified way in which she conducted herself in the days that followed her husband's assassination. Jackie later married prominent Greek shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis.

To apply Panofsky's three levels of meaning to the image, we can begin with the primary level6 clearly identifying the two people in the photograph as women. On a conventional level7, we notice that both are very stylishly dressed. While Jackie is wearing a blue sleeveless dress, Gayatri Devi is in a chiffon saree. Both women have got on pearl strings which goes to show that no matter which part of the world they come from, they both are in touch with the latest styles. Finally, at the intrinsic level8, the picture was taken during a polo match and it seems as if Gayatri Devi is pointing something out on the field. Both women are stylish and fashionable in their own right, but this sense of what is stylish stems from their cultural backgrounds. So while an American epitome of beauty and style would be putting on a dress with some mittens, the Indian epitome of classic beauty comes with wearing an elegant saree. The fact that they are watching a polo match also signifies something. Polo is considered a game for the elite; therefore it is only the elite in society, and not the regular middle class who enjoy such things as sitting and watching a polo match.

Throughout their lives, both Gayatri Devi as well as Jackie have been involved with and supported various causes. “In 1943, Gayatri Devi opened the Maharani Gayatri Devi School for Girls' with 40 students and an English teacher.”9 The school is now considered to be one of the premiere institutions for girls in the country. Jackie Kennedy set up the “White House Fine Arts Committee made up of experts in historic preservation and decorative arts...Her interest in preservation extended beyond the United States and included her involvement in the rescue of the ancient Egyptian temples at Abu Simbel which were threatened by the flood waters created by the Aswan Dam.”10[5]

The photograph was taken in the year 1962 which was a year of achievement in the lives of both these women. “In 1962 [Gayatri Devi] she made her first public speech and contested her first election, winning an overwhelming victory over her Congress opponent as well as a place inThe Guinness Book of Recordsby securing a majority of 175,000 votes.”11 Jackie Kennedy too had a fulfilling year as she first set up the White House Historical Association, which then published the first official White House Guide Book. It was a huge success and “within six months of publication, 500,000 copies were sold.”12

Gayatri Devi's husband passed away in the year 1970. The period after his death was an exceptionally trying one for Gayatri Devi. While she was in mourning, she was persuaded to stand for elections, and in that same very year the Supreme Court passed the bill derecognizing the princely order. Because Gayatri Devi had stood for elections in the opposition party, she along with several other royal heads was put in prison. “This was the start of the State of Emergency period when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended all laws and made mass arrests on the ground that the security of the state was under threat.”13 However, no serious charges were ever laid upon Gayatri Devi.

Jackie too went through a terrible period of time after the death of her husband. The entire nation was in mourning while she tried to maintain a vey composed face and remained solemn, not once breaking down. She wanted to shield her children from all the media attention. About two weeks after the death of her husband, Jackie and the children had to vacate the White House. She eventually moved to New York but continued to remain within closed doors and mourn her loss.

Both women have had to face several tragedies in their lives. Jackie lost two children at birth and then her husband was shot dead while she sat next to him in a car. Gayatri Devi also lost her husband and spent the next thirty years in widowhood. However, she did not spend her time in seclusion, “as might have been expected of the widow of a Rajput ruler. She and her husband had shared a great zest for sport and entertainment and, to the indignation of the traditionalists, the Rajmata continued to live life to the full.”14

Another interesting connection between Gayatri Devi and Jackie is that they were both photographed by Cecil Beaton15. While Jackie was first photographed by him as a debutante for a feature about the Bouvier sisters in American Vogue, Gayatri Devi was photographed by him when she was being voted by Vogue as one of the ten most beautiful women in the world.

Photographers are constantly capturing pictures of important people in their lens, but to two women of substance, and that too in such a candid frame makes the image even more remarkable.

Gayatri Devi was an exceptionally strong character and did not succumb to the purdah. She and her husband were both very enthusiastic about sports. “Internationally known for her beauty, she became something of a fashion icon in her adulthood. Photographs of her draped in elegant chiffon saris, and decked with diamonds and pearls, splashed all across fashion and lifestyle magazines.”16 During John F. Kennedy's presidency, Jackie's every outfit became a fashion statement. She loved getting her clothes done by designers such as Oleg Cassini, Chanel, Givenchyand Dior.


  1. Howells, Richard. “Visual Culture”. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003-2009
  2. ed. Howells, Richard and Matson, W. Robert. “Using Visual Evidence”. New York: Open University Press, 2009
  3. Image:[/IMG]
  1. Arthur Rickerby, LIFE magazine (1962)
  2. Richard Howells, “Iconology” Visual Culture (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003-2009)
  3. Ibid2 PurdahorPardaais the practice of preventing women from being seen by men. This takes two forms: physicalsegregation of the sexes, and the requirement for women to cover their bodies and conceal their form. Purdah exists in various forms in theIslamic worldand amongHinduwomen in parts ofIndia. Physical segregation within a building can be done with walls, curtains, and screens. A woman's withdrawal into purdah restricts her personal, social and economic activities outside her home. The usual purdah garment worn is aburqa, which may or may not include ayashmak, aveilto conceal the face. The eyes may or may not be exposed.
  4. Ghagra choliis a traditional dress worn by girls ofNorth India. It is a two piece clothing comprising acholiand alahenga.Its usually a celebration dress and is worn by unwed girls onfestivals,pujas, orweddings. It is often seen as an ethnic Hindu dress. Ghagra cholis are simple long skirts worn with a blouse and a roll over chunari is seen aplenty in the interiors of India. It also has significance in the royal wardrobe. Mostly considered as the traditional wear with Punjabi's, Muslims and northern India it is now a common sight at wedding receptions irrespective of religion. Evolution has further developed this attire into a niche wear for special occasions. Be it an engagement ceremony, or a friends marriage, ghagra choli makes it presence obviously. Offering better textures in various fabrics like silk, satin crepe, net and georgette you can choose the colours from dull gold, rust and refreshing blue. Zardosi or hand embroidery the ghagra choli maintains the tradition.
  5. John F. Kennedy presidential Library and museum
  6. Ibid2
  7. Ibid2
  8. Ibid2
  9. Telegraph UK
  10. Ibid9
  11. Ibid9
  12. Ibid9
  13. Ibid9
  14. Ibid9
  15. Born in 1904 in London and coming of age at the peak of the 20s, Cecil Beaton was in love with the worlds of high society, theater, and glamour. Beauty in his hands was transformed into elegance, fantasy, romance and charm. His inspired amateurism led to a following among fashionable debutantes and eventually a full fledged career as the foremost fashion and portrait photographer of his day. He was so attuned to the changes of fashion that his career maintained its momentum for five decades; from the Sitwells to the Rolling Stones. Beaton died in 1980.
  16. Ibid9