India’s royal families may have lost their titles, privy purses and privileges but the best of the Maharajas of yesteryear are still capable of remarkable public spirited acts.
A good example of this is Gaj Singh II, the 64-year-old erstwhile Maharaja of Jodhpur, whose son, Yuvraj Shivraj Singh, now 37, sustained critical brain damage in a polo accident in Jaipur in 2005.
Speaking like any distraught father who did not know whether his son would survive a serious accident, Gaj Singh — known to all as “Bapji” — admitted: “It is very traumatic when you experience something like this.”
But he is using the experience of living through this nightmare to launch a worldwide campaign aimed at reducing the 1.5 million head injuries that occur in India every year, mostly in traffic accidents.
It’s true he has many interests, such as keeping an eye on the Taj-run Umaid Bhawan Palace and Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, improving water availability in Rajasthan and playing host to members of the British Royal family (“yes, the links are there”). However, he has given over much of his time to running the Indian Head Injury Foundation he set up in February 2007.
He has held fundraisers in Mumbai and London, and last week he was in Geneva promoting his “mission to build a comprehensive system in India for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury and to provide neuro-rehabilitation to such patients”.
He will ask corporate houses to donate billboards so that motorists can be urged to belt up, and passengers on scooters and motorbikes, especially women and children, advised to wear helmets.
“We will probably request some brand ambassador like Sachin Tendulkar — protective gear in sports is also very important,” he said.
Gaj Singh wants trauma centres to be set up in hospitals all over India and some on highways as well so that the brain-damaged can receive the correct initial treatment within the “golden hour” after an accident.
He wants to add more modern equipment to two trauma centres he has established in hospitals in Delhi and Jodhpur. He is being helped by Dr Rajendra Prasad, a consultant neurosurgeon from the Apollo Hospital in Delhi who is drawing up training programmes in his capacity as honorary executive director of the foundation.
Preparations are now under way for a major event in Jodhpur early next year. He is raising funds for his charity by inviting 250 high net worth couples to a networking summit called One World Retreat: Exploring the Beautiful Mind from March 8-10, 2013.
Sir Bob Geldof has pledged his support as its UK Patron. Sting will hold a concert in Umaid Bhawan Palace while the Vienna Philharmonic, in a first, are due to play in Mehrangarh Fort.
He hopes this will turn into an annual event “celebrating the finest minds” in culture, music, art, philanthropy and science in aid of the foundation.
“I invite enlightened and concerned people from all over the world to visit the glorious city of Jodhpur, while they help me raise funds and awareness for a cause I believe in with all my heart,” said Gaj Singh.
Personal to universal: Gaj Singh and Shivraj Singh in formal regalia; (top) Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur; (below) Shivraj with his wife
The funds, he said, would go towards creating preventative awareness, ensuring immediate diagnosis and the ongoing treatment and rehabilitation of traumatic brain injury victims — “all of which are desperately needed in India, ‘the head injury capital of the world’.”
In 1991, 60,000 people were killed in road traffic accidents, compared with 24,600 in 1980. This figure is now closing in on 1,00,000. Many are pedestrians or motorcyclists.
He explained the importance of receiving the right treatment within the “golden hour”. He recalled what happened after his only son, Shivraj Singh, was nearly crushed by a polo pony in 2005.
“It was near critical,” he remembered. “In Jaipur, where the accident was, he was a few days in hospital; then he was in a Bombay hospital for two months and then we took him for rehab in Mount Sinai (Medical Center) in New York. They did stabilise him in Jaipur but then the pressure continued to grow (in his brain) — they had to put in a stent by drilling a hole which relieved some of the pressure.”
Gaj Singh and his wife, Hemlata Rajye, were with Shivraj every step of the way.
“In Bombay they removed part of his scalp to allow the brain to expand — so the pressure did not damage the brain cells,” says his father. “Since then it has been a slow uphill process. If you don’t take the right steps at the right time the result could be very different. Today my son is walking, talking, he got married, he has a child and the therapy continues.”
In India, one out of six trauma victims dies, while in the US this figure is one out of 200. “Thirty per cent of those who currently die from head injuries could be saved if quality care were available to them sooner.”
About his son, Gaj Singh said: “A brain injury is a brain injury. But, at least, he is aware of everything and is happy.”