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Pupul Jayakar nee Mehta (11 September 1915 – 29 March 1997) was an Indian cultural activist and writer, best known for her work on the revival of traditional and village arts, handlooms, and handicrafts in post-independence India. She organised a series of Indian arts festivals in the 1980s in France, the US and Japan that helped to popularise Indian arts in the West. She was a friend and biographer to both the Nehru-Gandhi family and J Krishnamurti. Jayakar had a close relationship with three prime ministers: Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi. She served as cultural adviser to latter two, confirming her preeminence in cultural matters. She “presided colossus-like over the country’s cultural scene for nearly 40 years,” founding key arts and crafts institutions and promoting talented artists, and Indian arts and crafts through festivals and exhibitions worldwide.
In 1950, Jawaharlal Nehru invited her to study the handloom sector and work out plans for its revival. Eventually she served as chair of the All-India Handloom Board and Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation and played an important role in the revival of Madhubani painting. Jayakar founded the National Crafts Museum in 1956 and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in 1984 to restore and manage monuments and advocate for heritage property conservation.She was a founder and trustee of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), established in 1985 and in 1990 founded the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan (India’s third highest civilian honour) in 1967.
Jayakar was born in 1915 at Etawah in the state of United Provinces (later known as Uttar Pradesh). Her father was a liberal intellectual and senior officer in the Indian Civil Servicewhile her mother came from a Gujarati Brahmin family from Surat, where Pupul spent her yearly summer breaks. She had a brother, Kumaril Mehta, and four sisters, Purnima, Premlata, Amarganga and Nandini Mehta. Her father’s work took the family to many parts of India, where she got the opportunity to absorb local crafts and traditions early on in life.
At the age of eleven, she went to Banaras (Varanasi), where she studied in a school started by Annie Besant, theosophist, who was also active in Indian freedom movement. Subsequently, her father got posted to Allahabad, where she first came in contact with the Nehru family at age fifteen, as her father was a friend of Motilal Nehru. Later, she became friends with daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Priyadarshini (later, Indira Gandhi).
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 (now Mumbai).
After settling in Bombay, she launched “Toy Cart”, an English-language children’s magazine illustrated by noted painters Jamini Roy and M. F. Husain. She became politically involved after becoming assistant to Indian National Congress activist Mridula Sarabhai in the Kasturba Trust in 1940. She was also appointed assistant secretary of the women’s affairs in the National Planning Committee, then headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. In the late 1940s she became friends with J. Krishnamurti and also became involved in the handloom industry. She established the Weavers’ Service Centre, Besant Nagar, in Madras (Chennai), under the aegis of the Ministry of Textiles.
Early on, she became close friends with Indira Gandhi who, on becoming prime minister in 1966, appointed Jayakar as her cultural adviser. She became the executive director and later chair-person, of the Handicrafts and Handloom Corporation of India. From 1974 for three years she chaired the All India Handicrafts Board (HHEC).
She was behind the Festivals of India organised in London, Paris, and America lasting several months in the early 1980s and the ‘Apna Utsav’ (Our Festivals) during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, to whom also she was a cultural adviser, and held the rank of Cabinet minister.In 1982, she was appointed vice-president of Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), and remained vice-chairman of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust (1985–1989), apart from prime minister’s adviser on heritage and cultural resources. At the request of her friend Indira Gandhi, she founded the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage in 1984.
Pupul Jayakar was one of the enduring supporters of the ‘Hungry Generation’, a literary movement in Bengal, and had helped the Hungryalites during their trial in 1961. She was active with the Krishnamurti Foundation in India until her death. She helped in the establishment of the Krishnamurti Foundation in India, the United States, England, and some Latin American countries. She also played a great part in running the Rishi Valley School at Madanapalle, Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh.
She inspired many a young girl to be named after her unique name, prominent among those is Mrs. Nandini Pushkar Trivedi née Miss Nandini Vyas, the famous educationist who runs a school for the rural children on Bhopal-Berasia Road, by the name of Brigadier Trivedi Memorial Academy. Her popular name is Pupul, so kept by her parents from Varanasi, who were greatly influenced by Pupul Jayakar’s work, and that of her sister Nandini Mehta. Nandini Trivedi also named her niece Radhika Vyas after Pupul Jayakar’s daughter. Both Pupul and Nandini settled down in Mumbai.
Her best known books are her two biographies: J. Krishnamurti: A Biography (1988) and Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography (1992). In the latter, Jayakar reveals that her close friend Indira Gandhi had personally expressed to her a premonition of her death in the wake of the Operation Blue Star incident.