The Maharaja – the Splendours of India’s Royal Courts – at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Entrance to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toront...

Dates – November 20, 2010 to April 3, 2011
Straight from the Victoria and Albert museum London comes AGO’s latest exhibition.

Official website blurb (imagine a movie trailer guy saying this)

 “from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts brings to Canada for the first time more than 200 spectacular works of art created for India’s great kings — including paintings, furniture, decorative arts and jewellery. These magnificent objects chronicle the many aspects of royal life and celebrate a legacy of cultural patronage by generations of maharajas, both in India and in Europe.”

I have done some travel in India and spent my formative late teen years reading all sorts of literature tracking the rise and fall of the British in India; the violence; culture and history of the country. It is fair to say that I was fairly obsessed with the idea of visiting the country and indeed my two trips to this part of the world did not disappoint. So I had some background and a certain expectation of this exhibit at AGO.

My first impression –  the lacklustre entrance into the exhibit did not “whet” my appetite AT ALL. I could have done with a little more “atmosphere” and in that respect AGO did not deliver. 

Once in however, different story. The history of the Maharaja rule over about 300 years and incorporating a nicely done “end piece” on the metamorphosis iof “the Maharajahs” into modern times was mesmerizing.

If you look in depth at nothing else in this exhibition,  the 20-ft long scroll, right at the beginning, and painted between 1825-30  is an absolute MUST as a snapshot of the sheer splendour and majesty of the Maharaja era.  A sort of Bayeax Tapestry meets India, it depicts a religious procession headed up by the Maharaja of Mysore. Sitting in a golden palanquin atop an elaborately embellished elephant and surrounded by all the trappings of Indian royalty –  fans,  silver staffs and enormous parasols  – he is followed by  priests carrying statues of Hindu deities,  high officials in gold carriages and the royal wives and children in sedan chairs. The original scroll is exhibited iwith an accompanying copy of magnified noteable “soundbites” . Of particular significance was the depiction of the  British officer  (much bigger in proportion than even the Raj) and the presence of uniformed troops representing the enormous influence and symbiotic relationship that existed between the Maharajahs and the British right up until the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (after which  time the government disbanded the East India Company and placed India under British sovereignty).

Moving past this part of the exhibit into the more contemporary displays (via a live “sitar” duo), I loved the black and white photos of various Royalty by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton  followed by the  photos and furniture exhibits from some of the more contemporary palaces (art deco period).

In particular the late 1920’s designs by Eckhart Muthesius in the  “Manik Bagh”,  (meaning Jewel Gardens),  the palace of Prince Yeshwant Rao Holkar Bahadur (who later became the Maharajah of Indore. Check out the photos of the period furniture by Eileen Gray, Le Corbusier, Ruhlmann, Louis Sognot, and Charlotte Perriand. The interior was auctioned off by Sotheby, Parke, Barnet at Sporting Hiver, in Monte Carlo in 1980, hence the appearance of disparate pieces of the collection in exhibits such as this.

And Ronnie Barker style I am going to digress a little and expand upon the reference above to  Eileen Gray. If you are not interested in design/art deco, stop reading now; but a little snapshot into the life of this amazing designer whose work I saw profiled recently in one of those huge posh  design magazines. I actually cut out the picture for future reference and here she is again in a totally unexpected context. 

EILEEN GRAY (1878-1976) is now regarded as one of the most important furniture designers and architects and the most influential woman of the early 20th century modernism and Art Deco movements. Take  a look on at the fabulous Art Deco house at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin near Monaco. Bizzarely the E-1027 (named to represent the numeric code of herself and her lover Jean Badovici) has several times been allowed to fall steadily  into disrepair. In the 1990s the house’s furniture, also designed by Gray, was sold off by its owner to fund house repairs. Unfortunately the house  continued to disintegrate until a refurbishment in 2000. It has apparently been restored again.

Back to the AGO;  also on display, the “Star of India”, the world’s only saffron-coloured Rolls Royce, and the De Beers and Cartier jewelry collection at the end.

Oh and there is a special weekend event to accompany this special exhibit on weekend of 28 January – see AGO website (under links) for details


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