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The V&A Brings India’s Regal Splendour to London

Rita Payne, eTN London  Jul 28, 2009

If you’ve ever wanted to enter the opulent world of India’s maharajas you will be able to do so this autumn courtesy of London’s V&A museum.

At an event appropriately hosted by the Nehru Centre, the cultural arm of the Indian High Commission, the V&A unveiled plans for an exhibition due to open in October: Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts. This will be the first to comprehensively explore the world of the maharajas and their extraordinarily rich culture. A dedicated team has spent well over a year bringing together more than 250 magnificent objects many on loan to the UK for the first time from India’s royal collections. The exhibition will include three thrones, a silver gilt howdah, gem-encrusted weapons, court paintings, photographs, Indian turban jewels and jewellery commissioned from leading European designers in the 20th century. It will trace the changing role of the maharajas in an historical and social context and look at how their patronage of the arts both in India and Europe resulted in dazzling commissions designed to enhance royal status and identity.

The royal collections of Udaipur and Jodhpur are lending several spectacular paintings and objects. The V&A will be displaying two portraits from the 1930s of the elegant Maharaja of Indore. One depicts him in traditional Maratha attire and the other in modern Western dress. Another object on show for the first time in the UK is the Patiala Necklace, part of the largest single commission that Cartier has ever executed. Completed in 1928 and restored in 2002, this piece of ceremonial jewellery originally contained 2,930 diamonds and weighed almost a thousand carats.

The exhibition will begin with a recreation of an Indian royal procession with a life-sized model elephant adorned with jewels, textiles and trappings and surmounted with a silver howdah. The initial displays will explore ideas of kingship in India and the role of the maharaja as religious leader, military and political ruler and artistic patron. Symbols of kingship will include a gaddi (throne) from Udaipur, elaborate turban jewels, ceremonial swords and a gold ankus (elephant goad) set with diamonds. A palanquin from Jodhpur used to carry the Maharaja’s wife will provide a rare glimpse into the lives of the ladies at the royal court. The interior of the palanquin contains original framed prints and cushions.

The next section of the exhibition will focus on the shifts of power and taste in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The disintegration of the Mughal Empire led to a period of political change in which rival Indian kings laid claim to territory. On display will be the golden throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who united the warring factions of the Punjab into a powerful Sikh state, as well as weapons and armour owned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore and the Maratha ruler Yeshwant Rao Holkar of Indore.

This period also witnessed the rapid expansion of the territorial interests of the English East India Company. This led to a new hybrid Anglo-Indian style which will be seen in objects such as a Spode dinner service and an Egyptian-revival style chair designed for the Nawab of Awadh.

The exhibition will then look at the grand imperial durbars of the Raj through large-scale paintings and rare archive film footage. This section will include a carpet of pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds made for the Maharaja of Baroda and exhibited at the durbar of 1903.

The final section will explore the role of the ‘modern’ maharajas during the Raj and the increasing European influence on their lives. The
Exhibition will show how they were portrayed in both Indian and European style through portraits of the maharajas and their wives by photographers and artists including Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Raja Ravi Varma.

The maharajas’ patronage of European firms resulted in luxurious commissions. On display will be saris designed by leading
French couture houses, a Rolls Royce and a Louis Vuitton travelling case. The maharajas were also patrons of the emerging European avant-garde. The exhibition will include modernist furniture commissioned by the Maharaja of Indore for his palace in the 1930s and architectural designs for the Umaid Bhawan palace, an Art Deco style residence commissioned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

Mark Jones, Director of the V&A, said: “There has never been an exhibition like this before, showing the spectacular treasures of the courts of the majarajas. Many of the objects are leaving India for the first time to come to the V&A. The exhibition will show that India’s rulers were significant patrons of the arts, in India and the West and will tell the fascinating story of the changing role of the maharaja from the early 18th century to the final days of the Raj.”

The exhibition will be on from October 10 to 17 January 2010. One of the objectives of the meticulously planned display is to show that there was more to the maharajas than glittering jewels and sumptuous living; they also played an important role in promoting art, music and the rich heritage of the territories under their rule. Visitors to London this autumn will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to relive the splendour of India’s royal courts and view a collection of priceless objects displayed for the first time under one roof.

The V&A Brings India’s Regal Splendour to London

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