Maharajas at the V & A

The Victoria and Albert Museum is within close walking distance to my latest temporary home in London. Right now, as well as its impressive permanent collection of glinting treasures, it is home to Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts.

Visitors walk through the rooms as through history – chronologically. It all begins in the early eighteenth century, when the decline of the Mughal Empire left a vacuum for the old regional kingdoms to reoccupy.

The Maharajas sought to reinforce their position with opulent and symbolic spectacle. A  life-size, artificial elephant forms the magnificent centrepiece of the first room. It would have been the focal point of a stately procession, adorned in all the bejewelled and woven finery the maharaja atop could muster.

Beside the elephant are displayed the ruler’s various accessories including an impressive pair of karnia (round fans), once belonging to the Maharaja of Merwar. Each has a sun on one side and a moon on the other, indicating both his permanence and his claim to have descended from the sun.

On the walls around to the elephant, the modestly-sized scenes of religious ceremony and court life seem impossibly intricate. Visitors get right up close: the busy detail draws them in, like a Where’s Wally? double-spread. Paintings almost three hundred years old seem to teem with life, the jangling, hooting sounds of a procession in Udaipur recorded earlier this year providing the soundtrack.

In a long scroll showing the Maharaja of Mysore heading up a procession, every face in the crowd is different. Turbans are of different colours, skin various hues, and beards and noses individually-shaped. If the artist used stock figures, it’s hard to spot the duplicates.

Their subtly individualised features seem to bestow upon these figures a measure of individual intent. They are all depicted side-on, but some point left and others right, all apparently following their own noses. If they weren’t extras in an eighteenth century court scene, they could be the figures who bustled up and down Chandni Chowk, the congested beating heart of Old Delhi, when I walked its full length on my last day in India. Behind the coolly stylised, half-closed eye lids, I could see at once in these crowd scenes the chaos born of individualism.

My favourite of these paintings is Maharana Swarup Singh of Mewar at Holi (1851). Holi, the Festival of Spring, is still very much a feature of the Indian calendar: I celebrated Holi this year in Jaipur, Rajasthan, where I watched teams of men astride elephants sling powder wildly at each other ‘playing Holi’.

Though the kings and courtiers in the painting are on horseback, the scene is remarkably similar. Framed on four sides by the turreted white architecture of the palace at Udaipur plumes of red, green, blue and yellow colour cut soaring arcs through the air. The artist, thought to be ‘Tara’, looks as though he might have had an ‘spray paint’ aerosol can among his materials, so fluffy and light are his streaks of colour.

Maharana Swarup Singh of Mewar at Holi (1851)

The paintings and jewelled objects in these first rooms are full of significances and symbols beyond my comprehension; they draw on a visual language I cannot read. While some symbols, like the karnia’s sun and moon, are at least partly decipherable, others are more obscure. The label beneath a small painting of Raj Singh of Mewar explains that he is shown offering paan (nuts and herbs wrapped in betel leaf) to his guest ‘as a token of polite dismissal’.

Walking through the first rooms of this exhibition, one gets the sense of a culture – of its customs, symbols and self-representation – largely untouched by Western tastes and values.


Enter the East India Company. Bhim Singh receiving Sir Charles Metcalfe in the Mor Chowk (c.1826) is, at first glance, like the paintings that precede it. But look again and there are white-skinned British officials in uniform sitting stiffly at Bhim Singh’s feet, their legs crossed in half-lotus position. In another painting in the same series painted slightly later the British and Indians sit at the same level on Western chairs. Just as they did under the Mughals, the maharajas were beginning to adapt to the cultural norms of their foreign conquerors.

Bhim Singh receiving Sir Charles Metcalfe in the Mor Chowk (c.1826)

The next room takes us past the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’ or ‘First War of Independence’ (depending from which side you view it) to the time of the Raj, when the Brits where no longer canny traders but rulers with direct control over three-fifths of the subcontinent known as ‘British India’. (They controlled the remaining two-fifths indirectly.)

Though they had been relegated by the British from ‘kings’ to ‘princes’ or ‘native chiefs’, the maharajas seem obsessed with impressing them. The gifts of a formal exchange are displayed: the maharajas gave magnificent jewels, swords and shields; they received, in return, bibles and dictionaries, the supposed benefits of a British culture and imperial rule.

On the wall opposite a vast depiction of Queen Victoria’s coronation as Empress of India (in absentia) is an only slightly less giant sepia photograph of Jai Villas in Gwalior. The two tell of the great gulf in understanding and respect between the two peoples.

The enormous Jai Vilas, modelled on the Palace of Versailles, was purpose-built at vast expense by Jaiaji Scindia of Gwalior to house the Prince of Wales on his one-night stopover in 1875. The apparently uncomfortable sprawling pile makes a mockery of Jaiaji Scindia’s desperation to impress his British counterpart, just as the sheer size of the coronation scene is made ridiculous by ‘the Empress” conspicuous absence.

William Dalrymple writes in the Guardian: ‘The exhibition examines the legacy of India’s princely rulers, and especially their fateful relationship with the British. Jai Vilas is really as good a symbol of any of the misunderstandings that always beset that troubled relationship.’

This culturally-intelligent exhibition ends with a pair of portraits of the Maharaja of Indore in morning coat and in Maratha dress: in neither does he look he entirely comfortable. Inhabitors of a country beset by invadors since Alexander, the maharajas have always had to adapt to foreign ideas and tastes while maintaining native traditions and local power. It is just another facet of India’s remarkable – though not untroubled – pluralism.


Sir Yeshwant Rao Holkar, Maharaja of Indore


Maharaja exhibition curator, Anna Jackson, on the opening night

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on November 30, 2009.

2 Responses to “Maharajas at the V & A”

  1. Hello Grizzly,loving the arts news and I particularly enjoyed your recent Twitter review of Hot Chocolate with water versus Hot Chocolate made with milk.
    I have just nominated you for a Kreativ Bloggger Award!
    Begin the celebrations!

  2. […] Maharana Swarup Singh of Mewar at Holi (1851). Source […]

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