At the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, a new exhibition of historic Indian art from the royal collection of Jodhpur includes some serious bling: a glittering gold turban ornament studded with emeralds the size of your thumbnail. The emeralds were mounted in their gold setting without a backing so that light can shine through them; the belief was that the immutable power of the gems was thus transferred to the prince who wore them. Today, however, it conveniently means that visitors to the exhibition can gaze at the precious green marbles from either the back or the front of the display case.
Like those emeralds, the spiritual talisman of an oligarch now reinvented as mass edutainment, the long history of the maharajas of Jodhpur is one of cultural and political adaptability. Forced westward in the 12th century, the Rathore clan acclimatized to their new desert home in Rajasthan. Over the centuries, the Rathores made strategic alliances and cultural exchanges with their Mughal neighbours and rivals; under the British Raj, they succeeded in maintaining their sovereignty through a system of indirect rule. At Indian independence in 1947, they held onto their titles and their wealth even as they merged with the new republic. India ceased to officially recognize its royal titles in 1971, but as custodians of their ancestors’ treasures, the Rathores have now embraced the democratization of globalized culture.
And so, Treasures of a Desert Kingdom: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, an exhibition of prized objects rarely seen outside India, has been touring North America. The show is curated and organized by the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, which now holds the royal collection, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. It is making its only Canadian stop at the ROM where Gaj Singh, the current Maharaja and 38th in a continuous line, graced its opening, unveiling a show that ranges from historic jewels, armaments and paintings, to the dazzling aluminum Rolls-Royce his grandfather commissioned from the British automaker in 1927.
In the exhibition’s first room, the visitor is greeted by the sight of a gilded palanquin, a litter that would have been used to carry the Rathores in regal style at festivals or wedding ceremonies. A miniature palace all of its own with a domed roof and grillwork cage, it dates to the 18th century and was made in nearby Gujarat, where it was seized as a war trophy.
Scholars also speculate that is how a large Mughal tent came to Jodhpur. Erected in its full magnificence, it is a red and gold pavilion of cloth, miraculously preserved – or at least partially preserved. The canopy and the back are the real deal, dating to the 17th century; the sides and arched partitions are seamlessly integrated reproductions. Daggers and swords, bracelets and brooches, these hard objects can be maintained for centuries, but clothing and draperies fade and rot: the Mughal tent, the oldest example in existence, is the largest of several rare pieces of textile that are a highlight of the exhibition.
Apart from these few examples of war trophies, there is little explanation of how the maharajas of Jodhpur built their great wealth, nor much consideration of the labour required to create these marvellous things. Mainly, the visitor can accept that the subject of India’s vast discrepancies between rich and poor falls naturally outside the exhibition’s purview; occasionally the lacuna does seem ridiculous. In later rooms that track the acquisition of Western jewellery and vehicles in the 20th century, a text panel notes that during the Depression, India’s royals were the main patrons of Europe’s luxury brands – as though this was some humanitarian gesture on their part.
If the exhibition does not consider the servants and labourers, it does dwell at length on the role of women in an Indian court. It insists that the royal women, who watched public events from behind carved screens, were not passive prisoners of the zenana – or women’s quarters. They held significant power to advise and instruct, and ensured the balancing of leisure and work in royal life. The show offers a large collection of paintings in the miniaturist Indian style and includes several 18th-century views of women hidden behind screens at festivals or sporting events. Yet, in some unusual 19th-century paintings, they are also shown outdoors hunting, playing polo and even shooting – rifles at lions and water pistols at the Maharaja during the Holi spring festival.
It takes great technical skill to render the effect of a screen or grille over top of a painted face. Happily, Treasures of a Desert Kingdom does not only consider these paintings as social documents but also as artistic works. ROM curator Deepali Dewan has added a useful educational station that analyzes the iconography and stylistic conventions of a page from the Durga Charit, an illustrated manuscript about the goddess Durga. Here, elements such as hierarchical scale – important figures in the story are made bigger than lesser ones – and the blue skin of Indian gods are explained. Another section follows the refinement of court painting in the early 19th century, in particular by the artist Dana Bhatti, and explains the inventive sources of pigments including iridescent beetle wings and cow urine.
The traditional art of Indian miniature painting continues to this day, but by the 19th century the impact of photography was also being felt and portraits of the maharajas began to be based on Western-style studio photography. The court also imported Western art directly: the final room of this exhibition includes some art-deco jewels created in Europe for the current Maharaja’s grandmother as well as an image of his grandfather, who built Jodhpur’s first airport, with his plane.
And then there is the remarkable Rolls-Royce Phantom. It is a huge thing, a hulking mass of aluminum that has been burnished rather than painted. Commissioned for the ladies of the court, it includes tinted glass windows to offer the occupants privacy – and metal screens so they could remain protected while riding in an open car. As a teaser of sorts for the main exhibition, the ROM has put the Phantom out in the museum’s lobby so any passerby can pop in from Bloor Street and take a look. As Western technology meets Eastern opulence in this spectacularly extravagant machine, the hoi polloi can only gape.