A Maharaja does what socialist India can’t

A Maharaja does what socialist India can't

This piece cannot be written without full disclosure at the outset. The Maharaja and Maharani of Jodhpur are friends of mine and have been for more than half my life. I first met Gaj Singh, or Bapji as everyone calls him, when he had just returned from University in England and when in the drawing rooms of Delhi, women of all ages swooned over his good looks. Hemlata Rajye was in school with me and my first memory of her is of a girl in pigtails standing at the edge of a playing field. It was after she became the Maharani that I first went to Jodhpur and where I have gone many times since for private events and public ones and have been witness in this time to how much a private citizen can do to bring about important and impressive transitions from the old to the new.

To understand the transformation Bapji has wrought in Jodhpur I need to paint you a backdrop. In the 1970s, when he came home, not only was socialism at its height but India was ruled by a Prime Minister who seemed to have a personal vendetta against the princes who ruled more than 40 per cent of India till 1947. She abolished their privileges and took away their privy purses so even rich maharajas like Bapji had no choice but to allow their palaces to fall to ruin. When I first stayed in Umaid Bhawan in 1976, most of the rooms in this splendid palace were no longer in use and its gardens and courtyards were filled with wild grasses and weeds. As for the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort, it was in such a state of disuse and decay that I remember dodging bats to pass under its high arches and being assailed in its rooms by that depressing musty smell that pervades old monuments that have been severely neglected.

So last week when I went for the ‘One World Retreat’ Bapji organised to raise funds for setting up a Brain Trauma Centre, I was bedazzled by the transformation. Bapji had gathered together princes from Europe, sheikhs from Arabia and some of the richest men in India in the hope that they would contribute to his efforts to raise funds for his Head Injuries Foundation. So on the first evening, a drinks party was arranged in the fort after which we walked up to the ramparts in a procession and lining our route were dancers and fire-eaters, acrobats and musicians from Rajasthan. As I walked up, I found myself dazzled by how this wonderful old fort has now been restored to its former glory. In a courtyard that I remember from the old days as having fallen into an advanced state of decay, we watched a dance drama called ‘Nari’ which included women dancers and dance forms from all over India. Lights in shades of purple, electric blue, pink and yellow flashed down from balconies that nobody would have dared step onto in the old days as women dancers scattered flowers from above.

The next day, there was a sit-down dinner in the splendid gardens of Umaid Bhawan and a performance by Sting against the lighted backdrop of the palace. It is today not just restored to its former glory but probably more glorious than it has ever been. The restoration has been painstakingly undertaken by the Taj Group who now run Umaid Bhawan as a hotel. Raymond Bickson, the head of the Taj hotel group, happened to be seated next to me at dinner and he told me that putting in modern plumbing and electricity into such an old building had been a major challenge.

With the concerts and the auctions and the glittering socialites, it would have been easy to be fooled into believing that the retreat was just one long party but it was not. There was a serious purpose that came out in the talks we listened to on head injuries and in Bapji’s own speech at the dinner in Umaid Bhawan. He explained that his efforts to improve facilities for victims of head injuries in India began because of what happened to his son after a polo accident in February 2005. Yuvraj Shivraj Singh survived a severe head injury and several weeks in a coma only for his parents to find that after he left Bombay Hospital in a wheelchair, unable to speak or walk, there was nowhere he could go for rehabilitation and speech therapy. Bapji said he was fortunate that he was able to afford to take his son to New York where the finest doctors from the Brain Trauma Foundation were able to help him recover enough to lead a relatively normal life but most Indians would not be able to do this.

With the increase in motorised transport there has been a horrific increase in victims of head injuries but for those who cannot afford to take their loved ones for treatment abroad there is nothing to do other than watch them vegetate slowly for years and years. The Prince of Jodhpur has managed to get well enough to get married and have a beautiful little daughter called, Vaara, and one of the most moving moments of the weekend was when he danced for twenty minutes to Sting’s music.

After 65 years of rule by socialist leaders you would think that there would at least be healthcare of the highest quality available to the common man, but this, as all of us know well, is very far from happening. So it is ironic that it should be a Maharaja who has taken upon himself the task of trying to make it possible for ordinary Indians to not suffer what he suffered when his son was injured.

On a lighter note, is it not ironic that the princes who were so reviled by our socialist leaders are now back in their good books because finally even the most socialist of them have realised the enormous potential of tourism in bringing prosperity. But, it is not the ugly buildings built in socialist times that foreign tourists come to see but those old palaces that were allowed for so many decades to fall into decline. India’s ironies are so overwhelming sometimes that they acquire a surreal quality. But the real lesson I have learned from what Bapji has done for Jodhpur is how much private citizens like you and I can do in our own ways to make India a better country.

Photo credit: jamesandthegiantearth.com

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Tavleen Singh

Tavleen Singh is an Indian columnist, political reporter and writer.