Maharaja, the splendor of India’s royal courts

I won’t have time to do justice to this remarkable exhibition at the V&A, but wanted to mention it before it closes a few days hence. The visual splendor of the objects, paintings, jewels and textiles presented matches the historical interest of the show. It follows the course of India, from the decline of the Mughal empire, in the early 18th century, during the British Raj and to this day.

maharajas

maharajas

The Maharajas, descendants of local Mughal governors or self-made warlords, Hindu or Muslim, briefly governed large swaths of Indian territory. Some, like Tipu Sahib, Sultan of Mysore in the South, sought an alliance with the French before and during the Revolution to drive the British out.

But the Honourable East India Company, with its own army and tax collectors, proved to have an unshakable foothold in the country. Tipu Sahib and other resisting rulers were defeated and killed, though their descendants were often nominally kept in power, provided of course they collaborated with the East India Company.

It was not until the second half of the 19th century that India became officially a British possession. It would remain so until its independence and partition between modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But even under direct British rule, the Maharajas retained their crowns. Yet the exhibition notes how many of these “rulers” were children, whose stronger-minded relatives had been deposed.

Yet in the midst of colonial rule, whether that of the East India Company or the British government, traditional pageantry was preserved, symbols of power were retained, astonishing jewels were collected (by comparison the Crown Jewels displayed at the Tower of London look downright shabby.)

Yet the Maharajas were educated at the foremost English schools and universities, their portraits were painted by European artists, they adopted a Western lifestyle in Europe, patronizing Rolls Royce, Cartier and the French haute couture houses.

This contrast creates a sense of wonder and fascination, but also of sadness at the culture shock, at the weight of history. I noticed that visitors lingered in the last hall, as though reluctant to leave.

This will close very soon, but it will reopen in Munich, at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung (where, by the way, there is currently an Alphonse Mucha exhibition) from February 12 to May 23, 2010. And if you cannot see this exhibition, you may look at these videos.

Maharaja elephant processing

Maharaja elephant procession

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, until January 17, 2010

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8 Comments to “Maharaja, the splendor of India’s royal courts”

  1. Trent Lesly says:

    Where can I find more information on The British East India rule?

  2. Penny says:

    Another excellent blog! Some days I feel I live in the wrong city.

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  4. Catherine Delors says:

    Yes, Ellen, it was a thoroughly enjoyable show. Beyond the sheer magnificence of the artifacts on display, it was intelligently put together, very thought-provoking.

    The 1704 French translation of the Mille et Une Nuits (I like this title better than The Arabian Nights because many of the stories, including the most famous, are of Persian origin, and not set in Arab countries) was an immediate and immense success. The Wikipedia entry mentions (not surprisingly, without documenting that claim) that the translator, Antoine Galland, found his inspiration in Madame d’Aulnoy. Back to French fairy tales… It it a small world indeed!

    Eighteenth century decorative arts incorporated Chinese lacker and porcelain, to the point where in Pride & Prejudice, even Mrs. Phillips displays cheap imitations of china in her parlour.

    And there is an exhibition right now on 18th century travel books in Poitiers:
    http://bibliomab.wordpress.com/2010/01/08/traversees-recits-de-voyages-des-lumieres-a-luniversite-de-poitiers/

    Sadly, I won’t be able to see it, but one can discover it online:
    http://expo-recits-de-voyage.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/

  5. Ellen Moody says:

    I know that early in the 18th century the translations of Arabian Nights began, and in the later part Sir William Hamilton translated Kalidas’s Sakuntala, and that Sakuntala was disseminated (as there were translations of the Greek romances, e.g,, Theagenes and Chariclea, probably Daphnis and Chloe, imitated in Paul and Virginie), but wonder what were the travel books English and French people could and did read. Remember Fanny Price reading a travel book she was said to be imagining herself abroad and in another country with.

    It must have been fascinating to see. E.M.

  6. Felio Vasa says:

    Thank you!!!! I will look into this.

  7. Catherine Delors says:

    You are welcome, Felio! And I believe you would also much enjoy the exhibition catalog:

    http://www.amazon.com/Maharaja-Splendour-Indias-Royal-Courts/dp/1851775730/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1263387166&sr=8-1

    Put it on your wish list, maybe?

  8. Felio Vasa says:

    Thank you for posting this. What a fantastic exhibition to see. I love that you are bridging the different worlds of Royalty & their history. Last year I received a wonderful book called Maharaja & the Princely States of India by Sharada Dwivedi which has fabulous photos of the families you’re writing about.

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