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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Maharaja" Exhibit Overlooks Crucial Cultural Questions on India

Posted By on Wed, Nov 2, 2011 at 12:29 PM

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Some of the paintings depict a king atop a magnificently jeweled elephant (the ceremonial elephants are draped with what is called a jhool), and his subjects, in what is described as Darshan, the "dynamic exchange of seeing and being seen by a superior being." In the magnificence of their humility, the kings borrowed this notion from a Hindu one that says a deity, in revealing himself, bestows grace upon his followers, who in turn are made receptive to this grace by seeing him. 

Darshan is discussed and presented as if there is no  possibility that the modern democratic mind can reel at such ridiculousness. Whatever a demigod is, it is not a simple or indisputable concept. 

Just because the art of the time conveyed an uncomplicated acceptance of the notion that there were superior, even god-like beings who could, by the luck of their birth, bless the less fortunate masses, that does not mean that a retrospective on that art must assume the same. Was there any objection among the people to the ruler taking on the accoutrements of a god? How did the religious hierarchy respond? Was there any discussion, any argument at all in Indian culture around the idea of superior and inferior beings? 

There is a little discussion of women, how most rulers were unsurprisingly polygamous and the wives were often great patrons of the arts and religion. One wishes they factored more significantly in the artwork shown here. There is only one erotic painting displayed, which is surprising, as India is known for its erotic art, which was an area of royal patronage.     Nor is the subjugation to Great Britain given anything but terse summary of the failed revolts and reluctant concessions that brought India under British control. 

The matter-of-fact relaying of the rise and fall of the Raj (the British rule) recalls the grade-school history textbooks that gave the barest outline of historical events but withheld the extremes of human experience that were the fallout of those events, to be revealed to us when we were older and could better handle the ugly truth. One gets a greater sense of the tension between the cultures, and their affinities, in a single episode of Jewel in the Crown

Still less awkward than the royal wedding.
  • Still less awkward than the royal wedding.
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Larissa Archer


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