2,930 brilliant diamonds in the Patiala Necklace.
Should the viewer be proud of the maharajas’ amazing patronage of all the arts? Or cringe at the outrageous distribution of scarce resources in India back then? I personally think I would be angry.
But the Ontario museum was very clear. It was the first exhibition to celebrate the opulent world of the maharajas and their unique culture of artistic patronage. The curators and interpreters did a wonderful job of presenting the treasures in a historical context, learning how the rulers lived, what they valued, the political role they played and how, ultimately, the forces of history circumscribed their powers. I suppose their influence partially depended on how many Princely States there were in India proper. Wiki estimates that the number ranged from 160 in 1872 to 202 in 1941.
One element of colonial history need not have worried the Canadians. When the V&A showed the same exhibition in London, they made a serious attempt to put the myth of the maharajas in its proper courtly context, to explore the visual and artistic expressions of Indian kingship before and after the maharajas' Victorian heyday. As a result, the V & A show was haunted by the sad story of the princes and the British, telling how the British first bullied the princes into submission, schooling them in western tastes, then both mocked and envied the monsters they had created. Finally, the British quit India, leaving the maharajas to be abolished. The Ontario exhibition was presumably not haunted by colonial guilt.
1934 Rolls Royce Phantom II, custom-built
Processions in India during the 1800s were complex events that celebrated various kinds of power and prestige. They revealed tensions in political authority, social hierarchy and religious tradition. And the British representatives had to assert their colonial role without appearing to endorse or participate in the worship of Hindu deities who formed the focus of much of the event. So company-paintings were produced by Indian artists, presumably for British buyers, many of whom would have been employed by the East India Company.
Mysore Scroll, mid 1800s, now 6 ms long
A less arty but perhaps more spectacular exhibit was Star of India, an amazing 1934 Rolls Royce Phantom II custom-built for His Highness Thakore Sahib of Rajkot. Built with a polished aluminum hood and wing panels, the Star of India was expected to fetch a mind-boggling £8 million when it went on the open market in 2009! Even a German museum page that is normally blase about the top end of the Rolls Royce range became a drooling mess when examining the Star of India. It was not just a car; rather it was a symbol of a bygone era, when the maharajahs reigned in India and displayed their unfathomable wealth in the shape of fanciful and ever more lavishly designed cars. Unfathomable seems to be an appropriate word.
For those who couldn’t get to the exhibition, I have three recommendations. See the stunning images in Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts at The Victoria & Albert Museum, in Alain Truong's blog.
Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts, 2009
See a splendid film on the Maharaja Collection, recorded while the treasures were still in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.