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Exhibition of the art and material culture of India's maharajas opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Carriage, Fort Coach Factory, Bombay (Mumbai), 1915. Iron, wood, silver, gilded silver, enamel, glass, silk. Private Collection, Courtesy of Sinai and Sons Ltd., London.

RICHMOND, VA.- This May, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts will present the only East Coast opportunity to explore the art and material culture of India’s maharajas (“great kings”) from the early 18th century to the mid-20th century. Maharaja: The Splendors of India’s Great Kings, is an international touring exhibition organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, that opens May 21 and continues through August 19, 2012.

Through the experience of seeing more than 200 objects spanning three centuries, visitors will be immersed in the rich and intriguing world of India’s royal courts. Many of the objects are drawn from the V&A's unrivaled colonial-period collections.

“Visitors will get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the private lives of some of the world’s greatest and most legendary royals,” VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said. “Three centuries of elaborate jewelry, ornate weaponry, fascinating artwork, royal costumes and photographs will be on display. Maharaja is the first exhibition of its kind to delve into these kings’ unique culture. The museum’s South Asian and European decorative arts collections further illustrate the rich artistic tradition of this era.”

Set against a backdrop of the tumultuous changes of the early 18th century through the 1940s, the exhibition takes visitors on a tour of Indian kingdoms during eras of shifting political powers. A richly appointed throne room, a saddle carried by an elephant, a horse-drawn carriage of enameled silver, a throne sheathed in gold and numerous paintings are some of the objects that will animate the courts of India’s kings. Visitors will learn of the institution of Indian kingship through an exploration of the many roles – political, religious, military, and cultural – played by the ideal ruler. Through the art and objects made for the royals, the exhibition will trace the ways in which the maharajas adapted to the profound historical changes occurring during their time – from the waning of the Mughal Empire, through the rise of British hegemony to the eve of Indian and Pakistani independence.

Exhibition Highlights
Royal Procession

Ram Singh II, the ruler of Kota, a small state in northern India, rides proudly on a richly adorned elephant through the streets of his capital. His high status is shown by his radiant green halo, his parasol, and the attendants who wave ceremonial fly whisks around him. A dancing girl entertains him by performing on a platform mounted on his elephant’s tusks. Other attendants and musicians follow on foot, and the women of the city watch from balconies and rooftops.

Two-Piece Turban Ornament
This spectacular turban ornament (sarpech) consists of a feather-shaped upper part (jigha), worn vertically, and a headpiece (sarpati) worn horizontally. Traditionally at the Mughal court, only the ruler was entitled to wear a turban ornament. By the 1700s, such ornaments were given as symbols of royal favor to select noblemen, a convention that spread rapidly throughout the royal courts of India. This ornament of gold, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls was given in 1757 as a token of appreciation to Admiral Charles Watson by Nawab Mir Jafar who had been installed by the British as the new ruler of the eastern Indian state of Murshidabad.

This throne, decorated with richly worked sheets of gold, belonged to Ranjit Singh, the most powerful of the Sikh maharajas, and attests to the legendary magnificence of his court. Its distinctive cusped base is composed of two tiers of lotus petals (ancient Indian symbols of purity and creation), while the octagonal shape is based on Mughal furniture styles. The British victory over the Sikh kingdoms in the years following Ranjit Singh’s death was a triumphal event. This throne and other valuable treasures, including the famed Koh-i-noor diamond, were taken to London as symbols of British supremacy over the powerful Indian ruler.

The ritual of the grand royal procession remained an important public display of power and status during the period of British rule in India. The traditional elephants were still used, but European modes of transport, such as this landau carriage, became increasingly popular. Maharaja Bhavsinhji II, ruler of Bhavnagar, commissioned this carriage from the Fort Coach Factory in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1915. The whole structural framework is covered in silver, and the enameled decorations of flowers, birds and butterflies are masterpieces of technical skill.

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