The V&A opens its Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts exhibition on the 10th of October 2009. On first hearing of this, my initial expectations didn’t run so high. I’d been on countless visits to the V&A before to see its South Asian collection and expected the exhibition to be a continuation of this theme (with a few more artefacts). What I saw, however, went beyond expectation. It was a deeper, richer, darker account of the legacy of the Maharajas – and although the pieces with their embellishments were attractive to look at, the subtext was arguably the fall from splendour, shrouded by the shadow of political subterfuge and a scramble for lands and power.
Like most exhibits, there’s a chronological narrative. The story begins with the initial conflict between Mughul and Hindu cultures. We see how the division of lands creates the need for the Maharajas to impose authority and prominence over their kingdoms. The Procession of Krishnaraja, is a long Bayeux tapestry-like demonstration of such an occasion; it also marks the move of the old culture into the new. Pomp and circumstance is a powerful tool, and as you turn around the corner, you’re greeted by a large model of a techno-cubist elephant with full-frontal regalia. The scale of events is the first thing that hits you and you begin to understand the methods of the body politic. In a way, this marks a precedent for the rest of the exhibition, as from the 18th century all the way to 1947, the great art of show becomes the most powerful weapon in the Maharaja’s armoury.
The exhibition continues with a series of glorious artefacts: there are jewels, arms, court costumes, paintings and thrones. My mind ran through the lives of these courtiers, noblemen and kings and on experiences that I could only imagine. I tried to maintain a filmic chronology in my mind. It ran from Mughal-E-Azam and Jodha Akbar in the past, to Devdas andKshatriya in recent history. Through this chronology the exhibit continues to present a series of treasures, but it’s not until you reach half way through to the two large paintings: Queen Victoria Proclaimed Empress of India by Roderick Mackenzie and The Delhi Durbar, that you actually view the intensity of procession. The paintings evoke a powerful sense of colour, heat and spectacle. They offer a more personal connection to the lives and the history of the old kingdoms with their realist faces and life-size proportions. You learn about the changing face of colonial influence and a ‘real’ history seems apparent, whereas the earlier part of the exhibition feels like a far-off reality, merging with the older myths of India.
The latter part of the exhibit features a series of more modern items from the early twentieth century. These pictorial accounts of Maharaja life in sepia tones with ‘actual faces’ make it very engaging. At one point I saw a woman laughing at a picture of an Indian king being weighed on a life size scale. The influence of the British Raj and the marriage between cultures becomes more prominent. It isn’t something that you would consider overtly oppressive – as although wealth was taken and away and power was lost – the new generation of Maharaja’s maintained their opulent lifestyle - reflecting the golden age between the world wars. This is when you’re presented with newer treasures, vanity cases by Van Cleef & Arpels, dinner sets by Louis Vuitton and a whole dressing table set by Cartier. As the accessories are customised by the European design houses, the saris are sent to French couturiers. This part of history is like a chess game of trade-offs and bargains. It’s a game of principles for the new princes, but a game they have to play none the less. However, it does offer them a limited guarantee on their power and possessions without a fuller resort to all out violence.
The new Anglo-Indian marriage delights you with a secret history of glamour that you may never have known existed. Sadly, it wasn’t to last, as was the case with most colonial nations at this time. India was seeing great reform. Palaces became hotels and great jewels – like the Patiala necklace, mother of all necklaces – ended up in museums. Paintings by artists such as Raja Ravi Verma become highly westernised and royalty begins to don suits and gowns. Initially, it appears like an unfortunate trade-off, but scratch the surface and you see that for a considerable time it was the patronage of the Maharaja’s that helped companies like Rolls-Royce, they’d obviously held some of their power.
As the exhibition closes, we see a glorious Rolls-Royce and we’re reminded of how life has evolved since the grand elephant in the first room. Much may have changed, but the spirit of ‘show’ remains alive. There may have been trouble, conflict and misery in the various ages of the Maharajas, but there was also an overwhelming presence of pride, dignity and glamour. It is these latter themes that make this exhibition a profound and thoughtful experience.