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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Asian Art Museum Begins Bold New Direction with "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts"

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 9:00 AM


Last year, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco was in a dire situation. Faced with the possibility of bankruptcy, the museum curators decided it was time to move toward a bigger, bolder direction. The museum's newest exhibition, "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," does just that as it showcases the ever-changing but always opulent lifestyle of the powerful rulers of India.

The exhibit, which opened Friday, is split into three sections and features a wide and diverse collection of paintings, royal portraits, weaponry, jewelry, and furniture from different eras of the maharajas, which is Sanskrit for "great kings."


The first gallery of the exhibit focuses on the royal duties and decorum of maharajas. Maharajas were expected to have more refined tastes, a protocol that comes with surprise, considering the lavishness of the royal lifestyle: The exhibit is filled with intricately decorated robes and tapestries, luxurious jewelry and furnishings, and elaborate scenes of maharajas in royal processions that suggest otherwise. But behind their peacock-like display of opulence, maharajas were more than just grand public figures. Maharajas were also expected to be pious, to rule judiciously and generously, and to be skilled hunters and warriors.

In addition to displaying the wealth of the royal courts, the exhibit walks visitors through a historical journey of mahajaras and the political changes of India. The final portion of the exhibition begins with the fall of the Mughal Empire in the 1700s and moves on to show the influence of the British rule in the early 20th century. Here, we see the shift to Western influence: Maharajas dressed like English gentlemen, donned European accessories (Cartier being a major supplier to Indian rulers in the '20s), posed with English-language books in royal portraits, and also opted for the increasingly popular European convention of realism for portraiture.

Big and bold go hand in hand with "Maharaja," but the museum's new artistic direction is also seen beyond the rich artifacts of the exhibit itself. The museum commissioned Pixar animator Sanjay Patel to create vibrant, Disney-inspired Pop Art pieces as an homage to the show. Patel's work can be viewed on the museum exterior and will also be displayed in an show in November.

"Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts" continues through April 2012 at the Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F. General admission is $17.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF (follow Rachel Filipinas on Twitter at rachelfilipinas) and like us on Facebook.

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