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Every inch a king

Gaj Singh II ascended the throne 50 years ago. DIANE SUSTENDAL writes on how Jodhpur will be celebrating the occasion later this week.


A traditional match ... Gaj Singh II and Hemlata Rajye.

LIKE any other 54-year old, he is a classic Baby Boomer worrier.

There are too many projects on his desk. He works too many hours. He is concerned about the career paths and marriage choices of his two children. He would like more time with his attractive, attentive wife, and, adoring, aging mother. And every once in a while, he'd relish the idea of having a rip-roaring, hell-bent-to-leather good time.

Like most his age, he knows there will never be enough hours in the day or days in a year to accomplish all of his hopes and dreams. The telltale wisps of gray appearing at his hairline are an indication that he can't stop time or tide of any more than the rest of us.

What makes him different is that this particular Baby Boomer happens to also be H.H. the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur. And he can trace his ancestors back to 1226 A.D..

Like the Queen of England, he ascended to his throne 50 years ago this year. Both were surely sad to lose their fathers at what most would consider young ages. But Elizabeth II was a newlywed. Gaj Singh II was a tiny, bewildered four year-old, who had never been out of the family palace's women's quarters until he assumed his title and accompanying responsibilities in May 1952.

In truth, he is closer in age to the Prince of Wales. And he probably plays just as mean a game of polo, though he is more likely to point out the prowess of his son, who presently plays off a handicap for +3.

While some of the celebrations of the Jodhpuri anniversary have begun, things will culminate on May 31, with several days of receptions, musicals and an anniversary Durbar and a roster of national and international dignitaries in attendance. On that day, in his beloved Jodhpur, at the edge of the great Thar desert which is sure to be hell hot, His Highness will no doubt do several of the things he did so many 50 years ago.

He will surely walk out from what is now a family apartment located in part of a wing of the Umaid Bhawan Palace, the largest palace in all of India, and a shrine to all that is Art Deco. He will travel under the soaring dome of the palace's rotunda, past hunting trophies and gifts of state, through what is now the reception area of the palace-turned-hotel. As he steps out from the porte-cochere, he will surely squint into the glare of the blazing Rajasthani sun.

Doubtless, he will travel to the small, but significant, temple perched on a percipious edge of the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort overlooking all of the "Blue City". There like any other visitor, great, humble or both, he will do a pooja and receive the blessings of the priests who keep vigil over a statue of Jodha's adopted goddess brought from Mandore in 1460 and installed at the Chamunda Mataji Temple. He will then, in all likelihood, visit the Jaswant Thada, a gleaming white marble shrine to pay homage to his ancestors, a long-standing Rajput ritual.

One trusts there will be some dancing in the streets. On his birthday, there is usually a lot of flower petal throwing and merriment. So given the Rathore penchant for high-spirited fun, a 50th anniversary should involve, despite the heat, a good deal of razzle-dazzle.

On a regular day, "Bapji", as he is affectionately known, is greeted by many as by those who chose to honour him as such. That, despite the fact that, along with his peers, Gaj Singh II was, "de-recognised" as royalty by Indira Gandhi in 1971.

There, too, is a similarty to the Queen of England who has lost many of her "subjects" to independence. But, unlike Elizabeth II, though promised, today in India, there is no princely purse to cushion the coffers of Jodhpur's palaces. Which is why he has a job.

No. Several jobs. A founder and current president of The Heritage Hotels Association of India, of which he serves as president, he has been quite a force in turning many of the royal palaces into four and five-star heritage hotels. This is recognised as one of the best lures of tourists from around the world. It has also prevented historic palaces (large and small) forts, pavilions and gardens from being demolished and replaced with monolithic, monothematic facilities. He also serves as chairman of the Welcomheritage Group, Mayur Travels, and was the chairman, until 1998, of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation.

He is more than just the president and CEO of for-profit organisations. He is convenor of the Rajasthan State Chapter of The Indian National Trust of Art, Culture Heritage (INTACH); a founding member of Vanishing Herds Foundation; and a member of the Indian National Committee of the United World Colleges and the Marwar Education Foundations.

Being born at the dawn of independence, his mother, Her Highness The Rajamata Krishna Kumari made sure the young Gaj Singh II was trained and educated to have one foot in the past, one in the future and both placed to serve India.

As the last reigning Maharani of Marwar-Jodhpur (1947-49), she later served as a member of parliament, a position her son also held from 1990-92. She has used her considerable clout to create and oversee philanthropic, religious, and charitable institutions focussed on women's welfare and education, medical care and famine relief.

It fell to her and to make sure he could move with the times. Surrounding him with tutors, teachers and advisors, then, she shipped him off to England's finest universities Eton and Oxford, where he graduated, in 1970, with honours with B.A. and M.A. degrees in politics, philosophy and economics.

For a guy who wears a turban with the same ease as a blue blazer and khaki trousers, it came as somewhat of a surprise that he opted for a traditional arranged marriage. Especially as, while in Europe, his Hollywood handsome Rajput looks and shy smile caught the eye of many eligible and eager ladies. But what a successful match he has made.

Three years after graduating from Oxford, he married Hemlata Rajye, daughter of the late Raja Shivratan Deo Singh of Poonch and H.R.H. Princess Nalini Rajye Lakshmi of Nepal in Dehra Dun.

In August of 1974, his daughter Shivranjani Rajye was born. The following year his son Shivraj Singh was born in September. Both are thoroughly modern offspring. And while he may worry about their marriages, arranged or not, both are on interesting career tracks.

The princess has attended the Welham Girls High School in Dehra Dun, Bryanston College in Dorset and New Hall in Cambridge, England, where she received a B.A. in Archaeology and Anthropology. She also has done postgraduate work at New York University at its acclaimed film school. Today, she manages Mehrangarh Publishers.

The prince was educated at Mayo College, Ajmer, Eton and Brookes, Oxford. Armed with a degree in Business Administration he worked with the Schroder's Bank of Geneva and London and Jadine in Hong Kong before returning home. He is now entrenched in the business of managing the palace hotel group which includes Umaid Bhawan, Bal Samand, Sardar Samand, and various festivities and functions which involve the use of royal tents, a favorite re-invention of his father.

Where he finds time to play polo, which he has done so well that it has brought Jodhpur back into prominence on the circuit, is a mystery. Like father, like son. But, certainly, like most fathers, the Baby Boomer Maharaja is proud that his son wants to follow in his footsteps, divots and all.

And just how does one handle this 50th anniversary celebration of someone who is not supposed to be officially recognised as a maharaja?

Well, leave it to a mother to know best. She settled a trust, the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, in his name, appointing him chairman and involving each of his family members' officers.

And what is the mission statement of the foundation? According to the papers, it will "do all that is essential to improve the life of the deprived sections of the rural populace with special emphasis on promoting and organising activities related to the issue of sustainable resource management including water, forest and land resources, building the capacities of the economically and socially disadvantaged groups, promoting a self-reliant community, strengthening gender equality and fortifying volunteerism in social development."

Great. Just what he needs ... another project on his desk!

The writer is an international freelance journalist who is a regular cobtributor to The Hindu. She can be reached at dsustendal@hotmail.com

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