Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Baubles, bangles & beads

Fine Arts

'Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts' at the Asian Art Museum

Procession of Ram Sing II of Kota and his son at Kota, about 1850, opaque watercolor on paper. (Photo: V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)
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Just when belt-tightening has reached its apex and austerity threatens to be a long-term prospect rather than a temporary condition, here comes Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts, a glittering new show at the Asian Art Museum, where the overwhelming number of the exquisite 200 objects on display are gold, bejeweled or both. Outside of a high-end jewelry store, it's difficult to imagine where one could see such a profusion of rubies, emeralds, sapphires, diamonds and gold assembled in one place.

The craftsmanship and opulence of the exhibition's artworks represent the transcendental wealth and absolute power of India's rajas, who ruled from the 1700s to the mid-20th century. Unashamed of conspicuous consumption, they prized beauty in all things, and surrounded themselves with aesthetic pleasures, ubiquitous in this extraordinary show. A red velvet game-board has pieces inlaid with gems; even an implement for controlling elephants is made of sapphires and gold, and why not? Bling is good, as are royal pastimes of polo, hunting and elephant-riding during elaborate spectacles at the palaces. It's a vicarious thrill to enter the lives of those the ancients revered as "kings above kings." That reverence is expressed in the first object visitors see in the galleries, an unusually large, iconic portrait of Amar Singh II of Mewar (1700-50), a celestial vision of an ideal king, well-appointed and clasping the embellished hilt of his sword, his head framed by a golden halo. Evidently, when you're this close to the gods, you're entitled to the best the material world has to offer.

Turban ornament, 1730-55, gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphire, pearl. (Photo: V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

In photographic portraits of the maharajas in full regalia displayed here and taken by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton among others, the rulers are so laden with heavy jewels, ornate turban ornaments and splendid necklaces loaded with precious stones, it's amazing they could sit or stand up. An emerald ring carved with the royal seal belonging to Ram Singh II of Amber, a square emerald chunk as big as a doorstop and the luminous green of the Indian Ocean, and a ceremonial gold belt with enormous cut and polished diamonds are just a few of the magnificent specimens on exhibit that once belonged to the rajas. Beauty and grandeur weren't limited to jewels, there were ceremonial costumes and weaponry too gorgeous to fire, such as guns detailed in gold and decorated with incongruous pink enamel flowers or forged from rosewood with rich patina and intricate gold trim.

Suffice it to say, the Asian has once again hit it out of the park. Exotic and beautifully showcased, this voyage into untold luxury is also informative in terms of its historical underpinnings and the background provided for many of the uniformly high-quality objects. Set against a backdrop of historical events and turbulent politics during a period of seismic change spanning Great Britain's rise as a global power through the region's independence from colonial rule in 1947, Maharaja follows two thematic arcs: the religious and secular duties of India's rulers, who hailed from separate and competing fiefdoms; and the worlds of the maharajas themselves as they evolved from autonomous leaders to "native princes" under British control after 1858.

Although for many, India is either frozen in a distant mythical past envisioned by production designers – think Masterpiece Theater's Jewel in the Crown and David Lean epics – or known for spawning Bollywood extravaganzas and outsourcing, the exhibition addresses the 1800s and 1900s, a colorful if less familiar era.

The pageantry of the court is brought to teeming life in exquisite paintings done in watercolors whose pigments were made from ground lapis and gold. They chronicle processions with rajas atop lavishly adorned pachyderms and flanked by a retinue of courtiers, performers and followers participating in festivities. If traveling by elephant was too cumbersome, rajas toured in style inside silver horse-drawn carriages like the gilded "landau" vehicle owned by Maharaja Bhavsinhji II, ruler of Bhavnagar, which is decorated with delicate enamel birds, flowers, butterflies and Art Nouveau motifs.

Rulers sat on red velvet cushions on the floor, or crossed-legged in golden thrones, while an attendant stood holding peacock feathers in the shape of a quiver (peacocks were a symbol of royalty). A red canopy overhead, which represented divine sanction, provided protection, and an exquisitely painted, peacock-shaped stringed instrument, carved out of wood, was a source of musical accompaniment.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, where the modern, forward-thinking patron of the arts Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar II of Indore outfitted his residence with the latest technology and works by avant-garde European designers such as Le Corbusier. He relaxed in a red vinyl library chair with built-in headlamps, like one seen here from German architect Eckart Muthesius, who also designed the raja's modernist palace, and conducted business at Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann's macassar ebony, glass and chrome desk that sweeps around in a half-moon configuration. Seated in a sheepskin chair at his dressing table and gazing at his reflection in a three-way "Psyche" mirror, he must have thought to himself: "Ah, it's good to be king."

Through April 8.

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