January 19, 2010

Unexpectedly emotional – Maharaja at the V&A

Writing about web page http://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/future_exhibs/maharajas/index.html

maharajaMaharaja: the Splendour of India’s Royal Courts
Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London
Sunday 10th January 2010

A pre-Christmas attempt to head down to the Maharaja exhibition at the V&A Museum in London was thwarted by the snow, but with only a week till it closed, I decided enough was enough, and braved the icy conditions to go anyway. For those who don’t know, this was a collection of art and artefacts related to the various royal leaders of India from the 18th to mid-20th Century. The exhibition maps the changing face of India’s royalty, from the indigenous Hindu rajas to the Mughal invaders who established their own sovereign rule through to the East India Company and subsequent British Raj.

Artistically, it was fascinating, charting the development in painting styles, jewellery, clothing and decoration over the decades. From the cartoon-like but intricately detailed traditional paintings, through the oil-on-canvas works by British artists to photography of the 20th Century, it was wonderful to chart the journey of how human images were captured. Stunning silks alongside works of gold and gems placed in the context of lush interiors invoked the opulence of royal courts.

Historically, it was intriguing to see how the role of royal leaders – the “Maharajas” of the exhibition’s title – underwent a rather dramatic alteration from defenders of the country to princes by name alone. Displays of weaponry and armour in the 18th Century gave way to tailor-made furniture and Cartier-set diamonds in the 20th.

I came away from Maharaja with head over-full with confused thoughts and a heart over-full with a multitude of emotions. There’s no doubting the exhibition’s value as an artistic and historic display, but I very much doubt that anyone with any sort of connection to the Indian subcontinent will be able to view it with detached interest. I am a born and bred Brit, and my parents were born in Africa, but I left the exhibition feeling tied to India with a stronger thread than ever. I sincerely hope that a significant number of people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan origin made it to South Kensington to take a look: this was an exhibition of pre-1947 India, and therefore part of a heritage that belongs to us all (despite the fact that a large proportion of the pieces were “on loan from Her Majesty The Queen” – something I found surprisingly unsettling). I’d be interested to know how many others came away asking themselves the same question I did: how did we go from a nation where Hindu rajas made offerings to the Prophet in honour of their Muslim subjects, and Mughal sultans consulted with Hindu courtiers, to a nation of religious violence, a most terrible division of land and the worst displacement of people in modern history?

As I went through the exhibition I wondered, somewhat sadly, what the maharajas of old would have made of their descendents, if they could have seen the route that things would take. They perhaps would have recognised nothing of themselves, of their wisdom, bravery and patriotism, in those royal leaders eventually stripped of all legal rights in the independent India of 1971.

I had assumed that travelling in freezing weather to the V&A to see Maharaja would present difficulties, but the real challenge was dealing with the emotional impact of my visit. This exhibition was beautiful, touching and undoubtedly important – and I’m very glad I had the chance to experience it.

V xx

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