Monday, October 26, 2009

An exhibition I'd love to see!

The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has begun an exhibition titled 'Maharaja: The Splendour Of India's Royal Courts'. The BBC describes it like this:

When it comes to majestic grandeur, few monarchies in the world matched the opulence of India's royal courts in their heyday.

The Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in London has brought some of that splendour to life in a new exhibition featuring more than 250 rarely seen objects, including thrones, gem-encrusted weapons and even a life-sized and bejewelled maharaja's model elephant.

Organisers say that Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts is the first display that comprehensively explores the world of these exotic rulers and their rich culture.

The exhibition centres on the golden period of maharaja power: from the beginning of the 18th century to the mid-20th century. Many of the magnificent objects on display have been loaned by India's royal families.

The aim is to illuminate the plush and sometimes ostentatious lifestyles of maharajas that existed right up until the end of British rule in 1947.

"There has never been an exhibition like this before, showing the spectacular treasures of the courts of the maharajas," said V&A director Mark Jones.

"Many of the objects have left India for the first time to come to the V&A.

"This exhibition shows that India's rulers were significant patrons of the arts, in India and the West, and tells the fascinating story of the changing role of the maharaja from the early 18th century to the final days of the Raj."

One of the most fascinating items on display is the Patiala Necklace - one of jeweller Cartier's largest single commissions. Completed in 1928, it originally contained 2,930 diamonds.

Divided into sections, the exhibition starts with a recreation of an Indian royal procession, before examining the political, religious and military leadership roles a maharaja had to assume.

A brilliant and no doubt priceless display of oils, watercolours and sketches show how the secular and sacred power of an Indian king was expressed most spectacularly in the grand public processions that celebrated royal events and religious festivals.

. . .

The exhibition also examines changes in the balance of power and changes in taste in the 18th and 19th centuries, including the disintegration of the Mughal empire and the impact of expanding British influence.

It explains how even under the British, Indian rulers were expected to exercise rajadharma - the duties and behaviour appropriate to a king.

These duties include the protection of their subjects, the adjudication of disputes, and the ministering of justice and punishment.

. . .

The final section explores the role of "modern" maharajas and the increasing European influence on their lives and possessions.

The exhibition explains the Raj essentially operated as a two-tier system - the British had direct control over three-fifths of the subcontinent, known as "British India", and indirect control over the remaining territory.

Although Indian rulers were guaranteed their borders and rights, the British continued to interfere in the day-to-day running of their states and to limit royal authority - most dramatically in deposing rulers they viewed as unsuitable.

Around this time the number of Indian princes - as rulers were now termed - grew enormously as the British bestowed titles on landowners and chieftains.

A system of imperial orders was introduced to integrate Indian rulers into a western-style feudal hierarchy.

The most important states were ranked within a system of gun salutes; Queen Victoria was entitled to 101 guns, the viceroy and members of the royal family to 31, while the princes had between 21 and nine depending on their status.

There's more at the link.

The V&A Museum Web site has a whole section dealing with the new exhibition, including many photographs and detailed descriptions. I've taken the liberty of copying a few of their photographs and descriptions, in order to whet your appetite to go and look at the whole Web site. In no particular order, here they are. (The text below each picture is from the V&A Museum Web site.)

When borne on an elephant, Indian rulers sat on a howdah. It was often embellished with royal symbols and executed in silver or gold, the precious metals reflecting the majesty of the king. This howdah, complete with parasol, comes from the collection of the maharajas of Marwar. The rear seat would have been occupied by an attendant bearing a parasol or chauri.

This spectacular turban ornament (sarpech) consists of a jigha, a feather- shaped upper part worn vertically, and a sarpati, worn horizontally. At the Mughal court, a turban ornament was bestowed as a symbol of favour, a convention that spread throughout the subcontinent. The style of this piece is typical of Murshidabad and was given to Admiral Charles Watson by the ruler, Nawab Mir Jafar, in July 1757.

In Indian court ritual the power of the king was articulated through his regalia and insignia, collectively known as lawajama (literally ‘necessary things’). This round fan is an adani, and in procession was swung on the axis of a long staff. The textile draping would have been soaked in sandalwood oil, which gives off a distinctive scent that is considered sacred in Hinduism.

The Durbar of Bijay Singh of Rathore (opaque watercolour and gold on paper).
The richly dressed Maharaja is enthroned on a
gaddi (throne) under a canopy
and smoking a
hookah. Behind him an attendant holds a morchhal (peacock
feather fan), a symbol of royal authority. Textiles were used to create
splendour in various settings, in this instance in a lush garden. The strong
colours and bold composition are typical of Rajput painting.

This jewel-encrusted pen case with ink pot is an outstanding example of Mughal court craftsmanship. It was given by the emperor to a Rajput ruler as a mark of favour, probably as a reward after a victorious campaign. Its splendour suggests that it would have been used by the maharaja himself, for important personal communications or for signing court documents.

A popular pastime in royal India, chaupar was played by four people, individually or in pairs. These extraordinary pieces are richly enamelled and jewelled, with the different players identified by colour and gemstone: diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire. The enamelled dice are set with diamonds to indicate the numbers. The cloth board could be easily rolled and transported.

Indore was one of the most important Maratha states. It held out against the British until December 1817, when Company forces defeated the young Maharaja Malharrao Holkar and captured the state treasury. This sword probably belonged to the Maharaja himself as it is richly encrusted with gemstones and engraved with the chhatra, or royal parasol.

Necklace and earrings, Van Cleef & Arpels, Paris, 1949–50. This impressive
suite of jewellery was designed by Jacques Arpels for Sita Devi, the second
wife of Maharaja Pratapsinh Gaekwad of Baroda. She provided the remarkable
set of carved and cabochon emeralds from the Baroda treasury. The symmetry
of the necklace and earrings is testament both to the skill of the jeweller and
the quality of the stones.

As I said, these are just a few examples of all that's on display. Go look at the whole Exhibition Web site. It's worth the time and trouble.

If I weren't recovering from surgery, I'd seriously consider flying to London to see this exhibition before the scheduled closing date of January 17, 2010. This depth of information and quality of exhibits, dealing with one of the least-known yet most fascinating parts of human and colonial history, are seldom to be found. For my readers living closer to the V&A, please take advantage of your proximity to visit it, and let the rest of us know how you found it (either by e-mailing me, or leaving your impressions as a comment to this post).


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The V&A is also selling a catalogue of the exhibit. I'm not sure if it is available in the States or only through the V&A gift shop. If the latter, I'm tempted to buy before the dollar drops again!