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Groundbreaking exhibition brings centuries of royal treasures from Jodhpur, India, to the U.S. for the first time
Ali, Maharaja Takhat Singh on a Hunt with Royal Women (detail), Jodhpur, c. 1853, opaque watercolor and gold on paper, Mehrangarh Museum Trust. Neil Greentree, photographer.

HOUSTON, TX.- A major collaboration brings a groundbreaking exhibition of royal treasures from India to Houston in March. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in partnership with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust of Jodhpur, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India showcases nearly four centuries of artistic creation from the kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur, one of the largest princely states in India, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. The exhibition is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from March 4 through August 19, 2018, before touring to the Seattle Art Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada.

Through lavishly made ceremonial objects, finely crafted arms and armor, sumptuous jewels, intricately carved furnishings and more, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India outlines the dynamic history of the Marwar-Jodhpur region and the Rathore dynasty that ruled it for over seven centuries. Established in the 15th century, the city of Jodhpur was once the powerful capital of Marwar, a vast desert kingdom ruled by the Rathores, who were descendants of a hereditary social caste of Hindu warriors and kings (known as “kshatriyas”). Over the course of several centuries, the prosperity of Jodhpur attracted the attention of two successive empires who ruled India: the Mughals and the British. Both encounters reshaped Jodhpur’s cultural landscape, introducing objects, artists, languages, architectural styles and systems of administration that influenced the royal identity of the Rathore dynasty. Through some 250 objects from Indian courtly life, most never before seen outside of Jodphur, the exhibition illuminates how the Rathores acquired and commissioned objects amidst these cross-cultural exchanges to leverage patronage, diplomacy, matrimonial alliances, trade, and conquest.

Drawn primarily from the collections of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the private collections of the royal family of Jodhpur, the exhibition marks the first time that most of these treasures—including paintings, decorative arts and furniture, tents, canopies, carpets, textiles, and weapons—are being seen outside of their palace setting at Mehrangarh Fort and the first time they have traveled abroad. The foundations of the Fort, carved out of a rocky hillside 400 feet above Jodhpur, were laid by the Rathores in 1459 as a military stronghold. The Fort, famously described by Rudyard Kipling as “a palace that might have been built by Titans and colored by the morning sun,” has been the seat of the Rathore dynasty since then, serving as a royal residence, a center of cultural patronage, and a place of worship for the royal clan. Today, it houses the collection of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, which was established in 1972 by the current dynastic head of the Rathore clan, His Highness Maharaja GajSingh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, and remains one of the most important and best-preserved collections of fine and applied arts from the Mughal period of Indian history. A handful of carefully chosen objects from other notable collections, including The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, complete the presentation, while large-scale photomurals evoke the stunning setting of the Mehrangarh Museum, where H. H. Maharaja Gaj Singh II continues to preserve the living heritage of Jodhpur.

“Peacock in the Desert is the result of a landmark partnership, marking the first time the Mehrangarh Museum Trust has shared so many of the treasured objects of their collection,” commented Gary Tinterow, MFAH director. “We are deeply honored and grateful to be the first U.S. organization to present this show, and for the opportunity to provide visitors this unprecedented experience of India’s rich cultural history.”

“The fort of Jodhpur-Mehrangarh has been preserved as a record of the lives and legacy of the Rathores,” added His Highness Maharaja GajSingh II. “I look forward to sharing the artistic and cultural heritage of my country, India, and the city of Jodhpur and its people, with new audiences across North America.”

Exhibition Overview
Peacock in the Desert is curated by a team of scholars and professionals from India: Dr. Mahrukh Tarapor, senior advisor for international initiatives at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Dr. Karni Singh Jasol, director of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur; the late Martand Singh, chief consultant from the Mehrangarh Museum Trust; and Dr. Angma Dey Jhala, associate professor at Bentley University, who serves as project advisor and volume editor for the accompanying catalogue. Three central, underlying themes woven throughout Peacock in the Desert build upon recent and emerging scholarship to deepen visitors’ understanding of the multifaceted character of a traditional Indian kingdom:

• Interconnections: The relationships between palace and town, urban and rural, central empire and subsidiary kingdom, as well as those that resulted from migratory trade routes, marital alliances, and military partnerships/confrontations, all led to a dynamic crosspollination of new ideas and belief systems, which found brilliant expression in fine and decorative arts, architecture, design, performing arts, and more.

• The role of women and artisans: Contrary to the popular assumption that royal women were quietly hidden away, the exhibition explores the crucial role they played as agents of cultural change and patrons of the arts, showcasing how the gender roles, social etiquette, and aesthetic practices employed by women influenced the identity of Indian courts.

• Royal patronage and the continuity of tradition: An exploration of the royal courts and the ways they were able to preserve India’s cultural traditions, while at the same time absorbing and incorporating external influences.

These themes offer a new perspective on the cosmopolitan culture of the royal courts of the Marwar–Jodhpur region, communicated through the careful juxtaposition of objects, interpretive materials, and immersive installation within the exhibition’s six interlinked sections:

Tradition and Continuity: The Royal Wedding Procession
The exhibition opens with a dramatic recreation of a royal wedding procession with video projections of actual footage from royal weddings performed in the 20th century. Featuring elephant howdahs (seats), horse and elephant mannequins adorned with traditional wedding regalia, and royal insignia, this immersive environment introduces visitors to the role that marital alliances played in the lives of the citizens of Marwar-Jodhpur and in the development of the region’s aesthetic traditions.

The Rathores of Marwar
This section introduces the desert landscape of Marwar-Jodhpur, its diverse peoples, and the exhibition’s central protagonists: the Rathore clan that ruled the region from the 13th to the mid-20th century. Highlights include illuminated manuscript pages that illustrate the scenery of the region and detail the history of the dynasty; an exquisite wood and glass Mahadol (palanquin); textiles, such as turbans worn by various members of the desert community; and a model of the Mehrangarh Fort, in silver. Above: Gujarat, Palanquin (Mahadol), c. 1700–1730, gilded wood, glass, copper, and ferrous alloy, Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Conquest and Alliance: The Rathores and the Mughals
The arrival of, and eventual takeover by, the Mughal Empire in 1561 began centuries of political and military alliances brokered between the Mughals and the Rathore clan. This section examines the movement of objects throughout these alliances in the 16th and 17th centuries, presenting ornate sabers, daggers, and rifles alongside 17th- and 18th-century paintings and illustrations of court and war scenes. The section culminates in the extraordinary 17th-century Lal Dera tent, one of the oldest, if not the only, intact Indian court tent of its time.

Zenana: Cross-cultural Encounters
In this section, paintings, carpets, textiles, jewelry, along with intricately-carved sandstone jalis (screens), from behind which women viewed courtly activities, evoke the setting of a royal zenana, the womens’ wing of a Rathore palace. Here, the zenana is explored as a dynamic cosmopolitan space that not only housed women and objects, but also functioned as a preserver of intangible cultural traditions through the propagation of heirlooms, rituals, and dress throughout the centuries. Among the furnishings shown in this section is an exceptional wood baradari (pavilion).

Durbar: The Rathore Court
As Mughal influence began to decline in the late 18th century, the Rathore durbar (royal reception) capitalized on its diminished power by attracting artists and craftsmen from their weakened court. This, in addition to the growing trend of exchanging artworks as gifts, led to a period of intense creativity in artistic and decorative production and a cross-fertilization of Mughal and Rathore styles, as indicated by the woven canopy and textiles, finely crafted arms and armor, and 18th- and 19th-century paintings on view.

The Raj
Extravagant, large-scale objects immediately convey the tone of the last section of the exhibition, which explores the most dramatic period of transformation in Jodhpur’s history, triggered by the arrival of the British in 1818. Garments, paintings, decorative arts, and a 1944 Stinson L-5 Sentinel aircraft illustrate the influence of the British on the region and the unprecedented scale on which Jodhpur royalty began to embrace modernity and western culture as the movement for Indian independence—eventually granted in 1947—gained traction.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India, written by Karni Singh Jasol and edited by Angma Dey Jhala, with contributions by Peter Alford Andrews, Robert Elgood, Catherine Glynn, Shailka Mishra, and Giles Tillotson. Informed by emerging scholarship and archival research, Peacock in the Desert takes a multidisciplinary approach, examining Jodhpur and the region of Marwar from a broader context than has been customary. The publication offers a new perspective on the acquisition and commissioning of objects through patronage, diplomacy, matrimonial alliances, trade, and conquest, and sheds light on the influential role of women at the royal courts for the first time. Peacock in the Desert also features newly commissioned photography of the nearly 250 objects on display.

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