Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Court
San Francisco, CA 94102
The word maharaja evokes for many an image of a bejeweled and turbaned ruler, whose authority is absolute, whose wealth is immense, who indulges in a lavish lifestyle. But that is only a part of the picture, and more applicable to a later chapter of history at that, after India became a colony of the British empire in the mid-nineteenth century. Although Hindu and Muslim rulers were also known by other titles, including maharana, maharao, nawab, and nizam, the word maharaja, which means "great king," came to be used as a generic term to describe all of India's kings.
An exhibition on the splendors of India's royal courts initially aroused my skepticism. There should be more compelling reasons for an exhibition than merely to admire two hundred beautiful objects. Granted, admiring beautiful objects is something that we as art lovers, art historians, and curators love to do, but sometimes that is not enough. Especially not when the objects have more interesting stories to tell. Refreshingly, the Maharaja exhibition redresses commonly held perceptions and succeeds in adding greater depth and nuance to its subjects. Nearly every object included in the display has a great story and multiple layers of meaning behind it.
The two principal narrative arcs around which the exhibition is organized bring to life the complex and fascinating worlds of India's great kings. They help us to understand the real people behind the objects that were made for them. 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 eighteenth century through the 1930s, a period that saw a change in the maharajas' 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.
The many paintings and photographs of the maharajas on display not only document the active presence of real people who lived real lives but also offer us a glimpse into the worlds inhabited by them. The modes of representation offer considerable information. Whether or not as deliberate design, the ways in which the subjects are depicted, their gestures and stances, the objects that have been included in or left out of their mages, and the overall settings tell us something about how they wished to be viewed both in their own time and in posterity. Looking closely at the representations of individual maharajas in the exhibition enables us as 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.
Qamar Adamjee is the Asian Art Museum's assistant curator of South Asian Art.
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