Indian royals in London

Exhibition

royal tour Maharaja of  Indore in a Maratha  costume.  Photos  by author

Billed as “the first exhibition to comprehensively explore the extraordinarily rich culture of the maharajas,” ‘Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts’ opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum recently. The stylishly put together exhibition explores a number of themes relating to the concept of royalty in Indian kingdoms, from the beginning of the 18th century, when the decline of Mughal power accelerated following the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 to 1947, the end of British rule.

The Mughal Empire’s waning resulted in regional power vacuums which allowed old kingdoms to remerge and new powers, such as Maratha and Sikh rulers — including Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who united the Punjab into a Sikh state — to assert themselves. This, suggests the exhibition, was the great era of the maharajas.
Through the items on display and their legends, visitors learn that Indian kingship had many facets. Able rulers needed to master a broad skill set. Martial prowess and leadership needed to be balanced by a sense of diplomacy. Gradually, the essence and appearance of kingship evolved and a sense of royal duty and behaviour, known as rajadharma became formalised. The maharajas were, of course, territorial and political rulers who presided over royal courts which patronised poets, musicians, architects, artists, craftsmen and religion.

And, in time, the maharajas would become patrons of European as well as Indian artists and designers. “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,” summarises Mark Jones, director of the V&A.

Many of the 250 objects on display are being shown for the first time in the United Kingdom. A number of those items have been loaned from the private collections of the families stripped of their royal privileges and privy purse by Indira Gandhi in 1971. Portraits and costumes have been loaned from Baroda, Bikaner, Gwalior and Kaputhala. Items from the royal collections of Udaipur and Jodhpur are also on display. ‘Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts’ curator, Anna Jackson, the deputy keeper of the V&A’s Asian Department, spent time in India sourcing exhibits.
The exhibition’s consultant curator, Amin Jaffer, the international director of Asian art at Christies, wrote ‘Made for Maharajas: a design diary for Princely India’, which was published in 2006, on the royal interest for European luxury goods. This appetite is amply reflected in exhibits such as the Rolls-Royce Phantom, which dominates the floor of the fifth and final exhibition zone, Princely India.

Maharaja Yadarendra Singh of Patiala's stunning diamond necklace is also being shown. The Patiala necklace was part of Cartier’s largest single commission and completed in 1928. At the time of its completion it contained 2,930 diamonds, including the 234.69 carat De Beers Diamond, and weighed, in total, almost 1000 carats.

The exhibition shows that, by the first half of the 20th century, many of the maharajas were, at least ostensibly, significantly influenced by the British, who by then held direct control over three-fifths of the Subcontinent. Yet film of the Delhi Durbar of 1911 also shows that some, namely the Gaekwad of Baroda, who scandalously turned his back on King-Emperor George V, did not submit entirely to British manners.

As the maharajas’ political roles became less significant, they and their families became patrons of Europe’s avant-garde, commissioning portraits by the likes of Man Ray and Cecil Beaton. The Maharaja of Indore’s Modernist furniture is on display, so too are the designs for the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s Art Deco style Umaid Bhawan Palace. Seeing a Louis Vuitton travelling case and French designed sarees, it’s easy to draw parallels with today’s clamour for branded goods and international designer fashions. Despite recent reports in the western press regarding India’s new found disposable income, the Subcontinent has clearly long been a market for western luxury goods.

On the subject of a maharaja’s identity, it seems poignant that the final items on display in the exhibition are two portraits of the Maharaja of Indore, dating from the 1930s. Painted by Bernard Boutet de Monvel, the portraits are on public display together for the first time. One depicts the maharaja in Maratha dress while the other shows him in a western evening suit. He seems equally at ease in both.
Indians visitors to the exhibition are likely to be more familiar with the terminology used in the exhibition than people from the UK and elsewhere. Upon stepping into the exhibition visitors are told that maharaja, meaning “great king”, is derived from the Sanskrit word maharajadhiraj meaning ‘king above kings’. Interestingly, the title was rarely used in formal situations until the late 19th century and a plethora of other titles — including maharana, raja, rana, rao, sultan, nawab and nizam —
remained in use.

Visitors have the option of hearing this information on one of the exhibition’s portable audio-visual devices. They add significant depth and detail to the information provided by the gallery legends. In addition to an information-rich, documentary style commentary, the devices play film sequences from Indian palaces and interviews with the descendents of maharajas. Their reminiscing and personalised insights provide views on what it was like to grow up inside the palace and what the maharajas were in private. Technology, then, is being used to enhance the interpretation of history.

The subtly lit exhibition holds a number of eye catching attractions. Quite a number of the exhibits, such as the ceremonial gold and diamond set ankus, used by a mahouts during royal processions in Jaipur, and the gaddi (throne), from Udaipur, are from northern India. Visitors from southern India may well be fascinated by the weapons and armour of Tipu Sultan plus a painting showing details from a procession during the reign of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III of Mysore (1825-1830). Painted in a style reminiscent of miniature paintings, the scroll shows men in kurta pyjamas, women in sarees, and fireworks sparking in fountains. An outsized British resident, on a horse, and maharaja, on a golden howdah, head the procession.

The exhibition also offers visitors a framework of events through which they can deepen their knowledge of Indian royalty, as well as aspects of art and design from their courts. A series of lectures, films, art events and seminars will be held throughout the duration of ‘Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts’. A symposium on November 21, ‘Maharaja - Representation and Reality’, will explore issues such as the legacies of India’s royal families and the creation and prevalence of the stereotype of the maharaja, thus offering participants opportunities to express their views while learning from others.

After the exhibition closes at the Victoria and Albert Museum on January 17, 2010, it will tour to the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung in Munich, Germany. ‘Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts’ will be displayed there from 12 February 12 to May 23. And from the autumn of next year a version of the exhibition will tour North America.

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