Obituary: Pupul Jayakar

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The Independent Online
Pupul Jayakar, better known as India's "cultural tsarina", presided colossus-like over the country's cultural scene for nearly 40 years, exposing its many facets overseas through expensive promotional extravaganzas in the 1970s and 1980s.

Jayakar's closeness to three succeeding prime ministers - Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv - helped firmly establish her cultural suzerainty. And by the early 1980s Jayakar's immense talent, unchallenged haughtiness and arrogance, which she made little effort to hide, made her a formidable force, often hated and feared in New Delhi's incestuous power circles. But when the face-off with Rajiv Gandhi finally came, following court intrigues in the late 1980s, she quietly relinquished power and retired to her flat in Bombay, busying herself with writing and advising on cultural matters.

Jayakar had an unerring eye for excellence. She talent- spotted people long before they blossomed and encouraged several painters and artists who are today household names in India. She was a good organiser, tirelessly promoting local hand-loom and handicraft products and establishing the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), primarily to preserve decaying monuments, in the early 1980s.

She also opened several design workshops, devised marketing strategies to develop traditional crafts and started the National Crafts Museum in the late Eighties and, in 1990, the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi.

But Jayakar used India's cultural vastness as a lever of power. She began by organising cultural festivals during the internal emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s, to divert attention from the suspension of civil liberties which was brutally imposed. These were followed by the grandiose and hugely expensive Festivals of India in London, Paris and America lasting several months in the early 1980s and the politically correct Apna Utsav or "Our Festivals" in Rajiv Gandhi's time which earned the silver-haired and plump Jayakar the sobriquet of "cultural tsarina".

She travelled extensively to remote places in India, seeking out local handicrafts and traditional skills and was a cultural chameleon, at home in contrasting milieux. Convinced she could do no wrong, she said once, "I do not have to justify my actions to anyone. I can look back with satisfaction that I have lit a few lamps in this country."

Born in 1915 into a Brahmin family from the western state of Gujarat, Jayakar was tutored privately at home by an Irish governess employed by her father, who was a member of the Indian Civil Service. She attended Bedford College in London before graduating from the London School of Economics in 1936.

On returning home she married Manmohan Jayakar, a barrister, and settled down in Bombay where she launched Toy Cart, an English-language children's magazine illustrated by Jamini Roy and M.F. Hussain, two of India's best- known painters. In 1940 she was appointed to the National Planning Committee headed by Nehru and came into close contact with Indira Gandhi who, on becoming prime minister in 1966, appointed Jayakar as her cultural adviser.

During the late 1940s Jayakar had become an ardent follower of the philosopher and theosophist J. Krishnamurti and wrote his biography which was published in Britain in 1986. She also wrote Earthen Drum (1981), an illustrated book on India's mural art forms, and The Buddha (1982), a philosophical treatise for young people. A gracious and charming conversationalist and host, she had impeccable taste in clothes and was a graceful mixture of Indian and Western traditions.

Kuldip Singh

Pupul Mehta, cultural adviser: born Etawah, India 11 September 1915; married 1937 Manmohan Jayakar (died 1972; one daughter); died Bombay 29 March 1997.