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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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Particularly fascinating are examples of the maharajas' willing adoption of western fashions and lifestyles, most noticeable in the final decades of the Raj. Maharajas were often educated in Europe or by English tutors, and they took up English hobbies such as cricket and fox-hunting. But as India's discontent was coming to a head and coalescing into a viable liberation movement under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi, the maharajas appeared more flamboyantly europhilic than ever. 

Several drawings depict the Art Deco interior of the Umaid Bhawan palace in Jodphur, commissioned by Maharaja Umaid Singh and designed by British architect Henry Lancaster.  
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Gorgeous, to be sure, but dissonant with the burgeoning Indian pride movement gaining traction outside the palace grounds. One is left to guess at the consequence, if any, of this disparity between the rulers' championing of the culture of the oppressors, and the people's struggle to shrug it off. Other examples of the Indian princes looking westward for their luxuries include a spectacular 1,000-carat diamond and ruby Cartier necklace (although many of the stones have been replaced with cubic zirconia after the originals were lost or sold off) commissioned by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, and several stunning saris made in the traditional style by Parisian couture houses. Even the humblest sari can hold its own as a thing of beauty against the fanciest western dress of any era, yet the museum offers no insight into why privileged Indian women preferred to have French-made versions of their native dress, so one is left to assume it was the usual fondness for the dominant culture on the part of a nation with an inferiority complex, like the 19th-century French-speaking Russian aristocrats who spoke Russian only with their servants.

Not only does this conflict with the celebratory spirit of the installation (and failing to acknowledge that one could wonder at this complexity indicates that even the curators don't take issue with it), it seems it would have conflicted with the patriotic movement that was strengthening during these same years. Some went farther: Rashwant Rao Holkar II, ruler of Indor, posed in Western evening dress for this portrait by Bernard Boutet de Monvel, in 1929.

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This, an array of furniture from his Modernist Manik Bagh Palace (by a German architect), and several sensational portraits of the ruler and his wife by Man Ray show a man fully given over to western style and sensibility. What did it mean, that while the populist movement pursued political and cultural self-reclamation, the rulers of the nation donned full dandy get-up and went on blinkered shopping trips for the white man's trinkets? The exhibit ignores this question.

Of course you should see this exhibit. The work is beautiful, sometimes breath-taking. But it seems to have been arranged and presented without acknowledging that displays of great wealth (especially out of notoriously impoverished countries) raise uncomfortable questions. One shouldn't leave the museum suspecting that the beauty one enjoyed was some sort of decoy, rather than the catalyst of revelation and revolution.

At Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, I saw an old photograph of a gorgeously adorned camel. The adjacent description stated that when these camels grew too old to carry their royal human cargo, their legs were sliced off at the knees while still standing. Of course this bit of savagery is appalling, but one must respect the Turkish people (or the people in charge of curating and presenting their history) for not avoiding or veiling over the more grim aspects of their empire's modus operandi. Here, in this glittering monument to the magnificence of Istanbul, they were not afraid to reveal its foulness as well. That is what is missing from The Splendors of the Indian Royal Courts -- the risk of truth-telling, the trust that the story you tell is strengthened, not diminished, by telling the other side.

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