When Maharajasaurs Walked the Earth

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is currently running an exhibition called “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts”. The museum recently hosted a tour for journalists and bloggers, which I attended. The AGO earned my eternal wow by allowing my three-year-old son to tag along, and no, it wasn’t a disaster. My husband, who accompanied me, introduced my son to the security guard with the warning that the nice man would give him a time-out if he touched the exhibits. It was a very necessary manoeuver, for the exhibition included a car, a carriage, and life-size wire models of an elephant and a horse, all of which begged little boys to climb right up and ride away.  But the threat worked, and the Maharaja items  survived unscathed.

Maharaja consists of over 200 objects, most of which were loaned by the V&A Museum in London. The exhibition takes you through the many trappings of Indian kingship,  from sceptres to spittoons, and several items  had been  painstakingly restored for this event–a king’s costume on display had been re-lined with silk. The crowd-pleasers included a silver carriage adorned with bulldogs and hounds, a Rolls-Royce, and a howdah on a mock elephant. And of course, bucketfuls of bling, including a belt with diamonds the size of new potatoes.

Carriage pic. from here

“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,” says the website. Maharaja essentially aims to present a glimpse of the lifestyle and splendors of the Indian kings in the eighteenth and nineteenth century,  and I think it succeeds in its mandate. As a collection of  royal objects, Maharaja is quite spectacular, and well-worth a visit.

The  loaded political questions such treasures pose regarding their acquisition and ownership were, however, mostly side-stepped. One of the items on display is Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s golden throne, and an elderly Indian gentleman could not quite contain his shock or ire upon seeing it.  (The throne, along with several other precious objects, was  “taken” by the British when they annexed Punjab in 1849.) Understandably, the AGO downplayed the knotty historical context, but in my opinion, such erasure did tip the exhibition in the direction of Orientalism.

Ranjit Singh's throne (wikipedia)

Soooo…I have mixed feeling about the issues herein. On the one hand, many of the kings were corrupt, good-for-nothing layabouts who were utterly divorced from reality and who cared little for the welfare of their subjects–the average Indian peasant’s lot probably didn’t change much when the British Empire took over. But equally, the deliberate humiliation of the kings of India at the hands of the British isn’t comfortable history. The  rights and responsibilities of the Maharajas were systematically diminished by the British until their power was reduced to material wealth and little else, and I was both aghast and saddened by the excesses they subsequently embraced–there was an air of desperation about it all. Yes, these maharajasaurs mostly had extinction coming, but oh, it must have been quite a show when they ruled their earth.

I should also mention that we were guided by an exceptionally nice museum employee Rachel,  who probably  knew more Indian history than the rest of us put together.  And Piali, the Maharaja community blogger, was a fund of fascinating historical trivia–that sales of Rolls-Royces tapered off during the Great Depression except in India, where the kings continued to buy new toys with glee, starving subjects be damned. The exhibition runs till April 3; do visit if you have an hour or two to spare. And don’t forget to sedate the kids.

13 thoughts on “When Maharajasaurs Walked the Earth

  1. I love and agree with your penultimate paragraph. Throughout my school years, we were fed a very British-centric view of our historical personalities. So the Maharajas were portrayed as being venal, rapacious and dissolute (Tipu probably got the worst deal) while the British went around righting social atrocities, spreading justice, viewing everything from their superior moral perspective. I hope that today’s schoolchildren are given a more balanced view of history.

  2. Thanks, Niranjana. Fascinating stuff. I too grew up with that splendidly patchy view of history that schools in India were struggling to present when I was a child. It’s changed, I’m sure, but I;d be willing to bet it’s still patchy! All history is that way, because it’s really created by those who write it and any writer knows that viewpoint is everything.

  3. @Uma: I couldn’t agree more! I read somewhere that some right-wing Indian political parties are campaigning to rewrite history books, and of course, this raises a whole new set of troubling questions.

  4. The British Empire – at least you managed to get rid of it! In Scotland we still have to put up with the ‘high heid yins’ in London stealing our stuff for the London museums. In particular the Orkney chess set. The annoying thing is that they have so much ‘stuff’ that most of it just languishes in storage unseen by the public.

    • The AGO guide explained that some of the smaller items (like a ceremonial umbrella and fan, for instance) had been packed away and forgotten. The eye-poppers are part of the regular display, I believe.

  5. It’s all about perspectives right? this trip to India reminded me how much I have changed these past few years, any family gathering almost always turns into a huge discussion of politics and current affairs: I was amazed at the differences in views on the same “breaking news” stories –the perceptions in India vs those in the west…

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there IS no one right answer, we’ll color our opinions based on where we stand, left wing/ right wing, east/ west, haves and have nots….there’s got to be pinch of truth in each of these stories…

    Though I’d love to read history re-written from an Indian perspective, I shudder at the thought of the right wing name-changers taking on the project!!

    PS: I loved reading Maharanis by Lucy Moore..the book seemed to be a fair and balanced account of history. Have you read it?

    • I read about Moore’s book on another blog, but haven’t gotten round to reading it yet. And yes, as I grow older, I think I’m increasingly appreciating nuance!

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