Visiting the “Maharaja”
By Sonia Dhami
Splendors of India’s Royal Courts at the Asian Art Museum
The Sikh Foundation lately hosted its ex Trustees and friends to an afternoon of Art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco to experience the splendid exhibit “Maharaja – The Splendors of India’s Royal Courts”. The exhibit does not just leave the viewer spellbound as to the astounding wealth and riches of India’s Maharaja’s but also draws our attention to the deeper questions of how we, the modern viewer relate to these kings as people and how, they themselves wished to be viewed both in their own times and for posterity.
In the words of Qamar Adamjee, the assistant curator of South Asian Art at the museum, “The two principal narrative arcs around which the exhibition is organized bring to life the complex and fascinating worlds of India’s great kings. The first goes behind the scenes to analyze the roles and qualities of kingship in India. The second traces the ways the institution of kingship shifted against a rapidly changing political and historical backdrop from the early eighteen century through the 1930’s, a period that saw a change in the maharaja’s status from independent rulers to “native princes” under British colonial rule. All of this is illustrated by a stunning range of objects from paintings and photographs to arms and armor, furniture, costumes, and jewelry.”
Bisham Singh, Lahore, c.1850 — Opaque watercolor on paper — Toor Collection
The highlights of this exhibit include, a number of Sikh Art pieces, the foremost amongst them, the beautiful symbol of Sikh sovereignty – the golden throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh made by the master craftsman Hafiz Muhammad Multani of Lahore in 1820.
Alongside the throne hangs the exquisitely rendered scene of the court of the Maharaja by artist Bisham Singh of Lahore. The Maharaja is shown seated on his golden lotus throne placed on a richly decorated carpet. Alongside the Maharaja are seated his generals and ministers. In the middle, seated on the ground, are shown three scribes taking down the firmans and court orders which the Maharaja is dictating. The scene does not stop here itself but takes the viewer to the outside of the building where the military columns dressed in the modern European style uniforms are shown doing their military drills against the background of the countryside. Each of the characters shown in the painting has been painstakingly rendered with each minute detail of their garment & jewellery designs and the facial expressions. To help viewers appreciate the intricate details of such paintings, the gallery has placed magnifying glasses, peering through which one can discern each detail down to the hair in the beards of the people inhabiting this regal space.
The “Maharaja” was originally put together by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, before it came here to San Francisco. The Asian Art Museum has added artwork from its own extensive collections and made this exhibit unique as well. Noteworthy amongst such additions to the exhibit is the elegant jewellery box of Maharaja Ranjit Singh adorned with intricate designs inlaid with ivory. This splendid piece along with the elegant gilded Sikh helmet is from the Sikh Art collections gifted by Dr. & Mrs. N.S Kapany, to the Asian Art Museum. But what we have missed is Maharaja Sher Singh’s striking Emerald & gold belt studded with diamonds as well as the painting of Ranjit Singh’s meeting with Yashwant Rao Holkar, dating to 1805-10.
“Even in our own personal lives, we use dress, we use what we wear and don’t wear as our markers of identity,” says Qamar, “So I think these are the elements that become evident more so through a historical lens than we can see in our own lives. We ourselves are using designer labels to say something about our tastes and our positions, real or perceived or aspirational. It’s that human element that once you start going through this exhibition you can see it come through. That is a connecting point between people who may ask the question: ‘Why am I looking at all this glittery art by these rich people that lived somewhere far across the world 400 years ago?”
With this perspective we viewed the glittering ornaments, furniture and other decorative arts of the Maharaja’s. Their time in history was eclipsed by the growing power and influence of the British. With the developing political situation, there was not much for the Maharaja’s to do. Probably this allowed them to focus their attention and wealth on building their jewellery and decorative arts collections. Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, chose France rather than England, as his cultural inspiration. He commissioned numerous important pieces becoming the celebrated patron of French jewelers.
Kapurthala’s dazzling collections inspired the Patiala ruler, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh to grant “Cartier”, the leading Parisian jeweler its largest single commission ever of an enormous ceremonial diamond necklace 1928. This spectacular piece is indeed the crowning jewel amongst all the jewels in the exhibit. Alongside the display is a video showing Maharaja Yadavindra Singh of Patiala adorned with the necklace and attending darbar. Watching this video takes the viewer back to a time and place which no longer exists. The original necklace was subsequently cut up in pieces and sold. Some of the jewels of the original necklace turned up in Europe and were repurchased by Cartier and recreated into this stunning piece of jewellery.
Alongside the Sikh Maharajas, the exhibit splendidly showcases over 200 treasures from India’s other famed princely states of Hyderabad, Jaipur, Bhawalpur, Mysore, Udaipur, Kota, Jodhpur, Baroda, Gwalior, Bikaner, Orccha and many others. The full exhibit, which spans nearly three centuries, is presented in three tracks, beginning in the museum’s Lee Gallery. There, viewers are introduced to the concept of royal duty (rajadharma) and the strict behaviors demanded of India’s kings and queens; on display here is a throne room and examples of royal patronage of the arts and religious institutions.
In the words of our guest, Mallika Kaur, “I for one was particularly struck by the display that was trying to re-create the ‘King’s Darbar’. It was basically the gurudwara setting– with a chandoa and chaur etc. Of course one has always known that the Gurus were ingenious in declaring their political sovereignty from the rulers by stating that Waheguru is the only Sachaa Padshah, but seeing the actual chaurs from the 1800s made it so clear how the Gurus took the well-known signs of royalty and turned the entire narrative around! I’ve been thinking about Baagi Badshahsever since.”
In the Hambrecht Gallery, one can witness Indian royal spectacle — from a silver palanquin and video of a royal procession to weaponry, elaborate costumes and jewelry.
The Osher Gallery is devoted to the history and shifting power of the dynasties and empires of India as they evolved after the decline of the Mughal Empire and other forces such as the Marathas and the Sikhs and the English East India Company took hold.
Asian Art Museum, San Francisco – Lent by Kapany Collection
Once we were done with the main exhibit, there were still more treasures of the Sikh kingdoms to experience. On the 3rd floor of the museum, is the “Satinder Kaur Kapany Gallery of Sikh Art”. The most breathtaking of portraits of “Rani Jindan” by the English artist George Richmond adorns the wall alongside her colorfully beaded jewelry.
The Lion King, Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s seal and ring inscribed with the words “kal sahai Ranjit Singh 1809” translated to mean “With the help of the Eternal One” proclaims the power over life and death enshrined with the Maharaja.
All along the gallery wall are displayed more Sikh paintings and other very interesting artifacts including a royal brocade robe from the court of Maharaja Hira Singh of Nabha.
Walking out of the galleries, the mind whirls in the rich kaleidoscope of images and I recall the words of Qamar Adamjee “Looking closely at the representation of individual Maharajas in the exhibition enables modern viewers to enter the now-distant world of these individuals and relate to them, and to realize that such portraits may not, after all, be that different in their intent and function from the single image that we choose to represent us on our Facebook profiles.”
This collection of 200-plus treasures from royal India, organized in collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum of London, is now on display at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco through April 8, 2012.