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‘Maharaja’ shows majesty of India with jewels, costumes, an elephant

ProcessiRam Singh II Kotc. 1850 © VictoriAlbert
Museum London

Procession of Ram Singh II of Kota, c. 1850 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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Updated: November 18, 2012 6:06AM



For centuries maharajas were the princely rulers of India, a group of men who weren’t shy about wearing jewelry and traveled via bejeweled elephant.

On Oct. 17, they’re journeying to the Field Museum.

“Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts” offers visitors a detailed look into the rarified world of the rulers of India from the 1700s to the 1940s, when India achieved independence from colonial Britain.

The exhibit opened in 2009 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum before traveling to a Munich museum and three museums in the United States and Canada.

“Everybody had heard of the word maharaja,” said Anna Jackson, keeper of the Asian Department at the Victoria and Albert. “Maharaja sounds very exotic, romantic, wearing jewelry and turbans. You don’t really know what it means or who these people are.”

Jackson said she and former colleague Amin Jaffer, now international director of Asian Art at Christie’s auction house, decided to “pick that stereotype a bit and expose who these people are.”

“Maharaja” is a departure in some ways from the Field Museum’s typical offerings because it focuses heavily on visual artwork. But fans of the museum’s ability to transport visitors to a different time and place, with a heavy emphasis on a unique and foreign culture, won’t be disappointed.

“When we look for exhibitions we either look for them to fit to our strengths or we also look to fill in some of the gaps in our collections,” said Tom Skiwerski, the Field’s project manager for exhibitions. “We have an Indian collection but it’s not one of the strongest collections at the museum. This exhibit allows us to represent the Indian culture at the museum.”

At the center of the exhibit is Cartier’s Patiala necklace, commissioned by a maharaja to show off some family jewels. Constructed in 1928, the necklace is made of diamonds, topazes, smoky quartz and other gems. It took three years to complete and was, at the time, the largest commission Cartier had ever received. The necklace was reconstructed in 2002.

“It’s amazing work,” Skiwerski said, adding this is only the third time the necklace has been on display in the United States.

Also included in the exhibit are costumes, weapons and an elephant replica that didn’t make the rounds in some of the other North American exhibit venues because of its size.

“Kings would often process through the land and capital cities” on elephants, Jackson said. “We had this extravagant idea of trying to re-create this in our exhibition hall.”

This “jolly good idea” encountered some technical difficulties when Victoria and Albert staff tried to suss out the appropriate dimensions and dress of an Indian, not African, elephant.

Museum staff traveled to rural India to learn how to decorate the elephant from a retired elephant dresser and an elephant named Ramu.

“Ramu was very patient with us on a very, very hot day when our designer took the measurement,” she said. “I’m glad she is coming back to life after living a very forlorn life somewhere in London. She’s having a new life in North American that I hope she is enjoying.”

The elephants and Cartier jewelry are just pieces of the opulence of the maharaja lifestyle.

“We talk about the 1 percent here in this country; this is the 1/10th of one percent going on in India at the time,” said Skiwerski. “This is the elite, the ruling class. They were very wealthy and that shows.”

Elizabeth Oliver, a Ph.D art history student at Northwestern University who teaches an Art of India class at Columbia College, said that visitors to the “Maharaja” exhibit should remember that the maharajas were “vassal rulers” to the British colonialists.

“As a new viewer to Indian art, these objects should not be seen to represent a sort of timeless, pan-Indian idea of opulence and its relationship to royalty,” she said. “While there is plenty of that in India prior to the British Raj, this exhibit should serve as a reminder of the very specific and historically situated manifestations of power and royalty in South Asia. In this case, the idea of the maharaja, or great king, as it was defined by Britain’s growing presence on the subcontinent.”

Most of the maharajas acceded their kingdoms after British rule ended in 1947, creating modern-day India and Pakistan. In 1971, Indira Gandhi stripped them of all their privileges and instituted a tax on them. While the maharajas went through a period of being viewed as “personae non grata,” Jackson said that has slowly changed. Some former maharajas are involved in wildlife and cultural heritage programs, she said, and their palaces or estates are popular hotels and tourist attractions.

“People got over the idea that there is something awkward about India’s past but that it should be celebrated,” said Jackson. “The kings were great patrons of the arts. I think these things are being recognized again for their value, for their worth.”



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