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.



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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