Maharaja

The Splendour of India's Royal Courts

12 February – 24 May 2010

The Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung presented as the proud partner of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum »Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts«. The Kunsthalle was the sole continental venue of this unique exhibition. This was the first show to comprehensively explore the world of the maharajas and their extraordinarily rich culture, bringing together over 250 magnificent objects from India’s royal collections, many seen in Europe for the first time. The exhibition included three thrones, a silver gilt howdah, gem-encrusted weapons, court paintings, photographs, Indian turban jewels and jewellery commissioned from Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels in the 20th century.

The exhibition covered the period from the 18th century, when the great era of the maharajas had began, to the end of the Raj (British rule) in 1947. It showed the changing role of the maharajas in an historical and social context and looked at how their patronage of the arts both in India and Europe resulted in splendid and beautiful commissions designed to enhance royal status and identity.

Rare gain insight

The royal collections of Udaipur and Jodhpur lent several spectacular paintings and objects. Another object on show in Europe for the first time was the Patiala Necklace, part of the largest single commission that Cartier has ever executed. Completed in 1928 and restored in 2002, this piece of ceremonial jewellery originally contained 2,930 diamonds and weighed almost a thousand carats.

religious leader, military and political ruler and artistic patron

The exhibition began with a recreation of an Indian royal procession with a life-sized model elephant adorned with animal jewellery, textiles and trappings and surmounted with a silver howdah.

The initial display explored ideas of kingship in India and the role of the maharaja as religious leader, military and political ruler and artistic patron. Symbols of kingship included a gaddi (throne) from Udaipur, elaborate turban jewels, ceremonial swords and a gold ankus (elephant goad) set with diamonds. A palanquin from Jodhpur used to carry the Maharaja’s wife provided a rare glimpse into the lives of ladies at the royal court. The interior of the palanquin contained original framed prints and cushions.

Change in India in the 18th and 19th century

The next section of the exhibition focused in the shifts of power and taste in the 18th and the early 19th centuries. The disintegration of the Mughal Empire led to a period of political change in which rival Indian kings laid claim to territory. On display was the golden throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who united the warring factions of the Punjab into a powerful Sikh state, as well as weapons and armour owned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore and the Maratha ruler Yeshwant Rao Holkar of Indore.

This period also witnessed the rapid expansion to the territorial interest of the English East India Company. This led to a new hybrid Anglo-Indian style which could be seen in objects such as a Spode dinner service and an Egyptian-revival style chair designed for the Nawab of Awadh.

The exhibition then looked at the grand imperial durbars of the Raj through large-scale paintings and rare archive film footage. This section included a carpet of pearls, rubies, emeralds and diamonds made for the Maharaja of Baroda and exhibited at the durbar of 1903.

The european influence

The final section explored the role of the ‘modern’ maharajas during the Raj and the increasing European influence on their lives. The exhibition showed how they were portrayed in both Indian and European style through portraits of the maharajas and their wives by photographers and artists including Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Rja Ravi Varma.

The maharajas´ patronage of European firms resulted in luxurious commissions. On display were saris designed by leading French couture houses, a costume by Madeleine Vionnet, a diamond and emerald necklace designed by Van Cleef & Arpels and a Louis Vuitton travelling case.

The maharajas were also patrons of the emerging European avant-garde. The show included modernist furniture commissioned by the maharaja of Indore for his palace in the 1930s and architectural designs for the Umaid Bhawan palace, an Art deco style residence commissioned by the Maharaja of Jodhpur.

This exhibition demonstrates that India’s rulers were significant patrons of the arts, in India and the West, and told the fascinating story of the changing role of the maharaja from the early 18th century to the final days of the Raj.

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