Monday, July 28, 2014
The maharaja's silver carriage, European in design, was
built in Bombay, explained Anna Jackson, the deputy
keeper of the Asian department at the Victoria and
Albert Museum in London.
Prepare to be dazzled. Opening at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is "Maharaja: The Splendors of India's Great Kings" (May 21 to Aug. 19), a massive exhibition of 200 objects sprawling through three galleries. It starts right in the central lobby, where the solid silver carriage is parked. Built in 1915 by Pestonjee Press of the Fort Coach Company for the maharaja of Bhavnagar, this was one way the maharajas were keeping up with the shifting trends of history, as they transitioned from their preferred method of transportation, riding around on the backs of elephants.

VMFA Director Alex Nyerges explained that they considered knocking a hole in the wall and craning the carriage down into the museum's main exhibit space. However, the $60,000 price tag and the hassle involved led them to the simpler solution, requiring the removal of doors to place the carriage in the VMFA's atrium, was followed.

The VMFA is the single East Coast stop for this show, organized by London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Like the VMFS'a recent “Dynasty and Divinity” exhibit on ancient Nigeria, this astounding collection highlights a period of history in a part of the world that you may not know very much about.

And you’re not likely to see a silver-gilt howdah — that seating section strapped to the backs of elephants — anywhere else. Or the wide variety of belts, bracelets and necklaces that are among the “16 adornments” a court lady put on to display her beauty.

The show traces through the visual culture of India’s last royal families, spanning the period from the early 18th century to the mid 20th century. Anna Jackson, the deputy keeper of the Asian department at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, said in her opening remarks that to many people, Indian history is about the Shah Jahan and the 17th century Taj Mahal, then the British takeover and when they get kicked out. Somehow the middle bit gets left out.

Among my favorite things:

  • You’ll never think of the phrase “worth its weight in gold” the same again after seeing the 1820 watercolor (copied from an earlier work) of Jai Singh, ruler of Mewar, being weighed as part of a Tuladaan ceremony to celebrate the digging of the foundation for Dhebar Lake. Tuladaan was a major public gesture of beneficence, used for marking birthdays or weddings. The king would give away wealth equal to his balance on the scale. I’d hope for a portly maharaja.
  • Speaking of entourages, there’s a 24-foot-long watercolor depicting the royal procession of Krishnaraja Wodeyar III through Mysore. It’s a massive display of figures, from deities to British representatives, up to a man with a damaged leg and a girl with a bowl begging for alms. Running above this incredible piece are detailed descriptions — this alone could consume a good half-hour or more.
  • There’s a warrior princess, too, Queen Chand Bibi of Bijapur, a 16th-century ruler shown “shooting with her ladies” around 1750, demonstrating her right to bear arms. She defended her realm from Moghul forces, and besides her skill at soldiering, she was an accomplished poet and musician. She was a rarity at time when strict rules of conduct for women, the purdah, were enforced.
  • Lady Flying a Kite, an 18th-century watercolor, presents an intimate view of a young woman engaged in this whimsical pursuit. The piece was presented in a ritualized ceremony for display in the maharaja’s private quarters. The symbolism is of longing for an absent lover.
  • Toward the end of the exhibit is a marvelous section on “Jazz Age” maharajas that emphasizes the embracing of Art Deco design and architecture. This alone is worth the price of admission.

The exhibit is $15 for adults and $12 for seniors 65 and over; students with ID; adult groups of 10 or more; and youth ages 7 to 17. Tickets can also be purchased by calling 340-1405.

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