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Occupy India! Maharaja Riches at the Asian Art Museum

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It’s difficult not to contemplate the grotesque disparity of wealth that made the stunning objects in Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Courts possible. On view through April 8, 2012, at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the exhibition explores the privileged lives of India’s kings, from the early 18th century, when the disintegration of the Mughal Empire led to the rise of smaller kingdoms throughout the subcontinent, to the mid-20th century, when India’s maharajas, now pampered pets of their corpulent British overlords, mugged for Man Ray’s camera in Cannes and went on shopping sprees at Cartier.

Unfair allusions to the Occupy Wall Street movement aside (the complaints of OWS, however accurate, look positively bourgeois when contrasted with the abject poverty of a place like India), the exhibition is a well-paced, crisply presented affair. Organized by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the show fills three of the AAM’s ground-floor galleries, although never to overflowing. As a result, there’s plenty of room to contemplate each of the points the curators are trying to make via the almost 200 objects at their disposal.

Along the way, India’s kings are depicted as serene holy men, fierce warriors and sensitive lovers. We see their exploits in intricately detailed watercolors, as well as the objects they lived with, from furnishings to weaponry. If the pieces on view are any indication, these deified mortals valued, and no doubt demanded, the best their courts could offer. According to the evidence collected at the Asian Art Museum, they got it.

Turban ornament. 1750-1755. c. V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Belt. 1850–1900. c. The Trustees of the British Museum.

As a group, India’s maharajas appear to have been fixated on precious gemstones, especially rubies, diamonds and sapphires, some of which are as big as a linebacker’s thumb. In fact, the jewelry on display is dazzling. Jaw-droppers include the mid-19th-century belt that’s anchored by a quartet of half-dollar sized diamonds, which are backed with reflective foil to give them even more depth. Then there are the turban ornaments, with their sprays of rubies, rows of emeralds and keystones of sapphires and yet more emeralds, the closest things these kings had to actual crowns.


Even more plentiful are the jewels worn by each maharaja’s female counterpart, the rani. Numerous necklaces sagging under the weight of their gemstones are on display, but women in the courts of the maharajas also wore hair ornaments made of gold; ear-size ear ornaments as well as more diminutive earrings; and anklets, armbands and bracelets of gold accented with detailed enamelwork and the requisite number of emeralds, rubies and sapphires.

Throne chair. About 1820. c. V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

While the jewelry and clothing on view will cause the fashionistas attending the show to gasp, I think the more interesting objects are those that are particular to the world the maharajas inhabited. For me, the most wonderfully bizarre pieces have to do with seating. In one gallery, for example, we see a velvet and silk gaddi — a flat square pillow paired with a cylindrical one — backed by a tent hanging that framed the maharaja from behind and a canopy that sheltered him from above. In another gallery is a wooden throne from Lahore, circa 1820, that’s entirely covered with embossed gold. How could one not sit cross-legged on this glowing perch day after day and not entertain the notion that they were some sort of god?

Even more elevating is the elephant throne, or howdah, whose wooden frame is completely gilded by a silver surface of lions, oxen, peacocks and other decorative designs. Velvet, silk and brocade line the seats, cushioning the sensitive bottoms of the maharaja and his party, while an umbrella shelters the king from the harsh rays of the sun.

Numerous watercolors show elephant-throne processions from the 1700s and 1800s, and be prepared to get blissfully lost in the unrolled processional scroll nearby. A black-and-white version of the scroll hangs above the one on view, highlighting various vignettes such as a woman in one edge of the crowd touching the chin of a man to signify her affection for him. While the vast majority of the exhibition is naturally devoted to the trappings, pomp and splendor of the maharajas, I have to say I was grateful to have the elephant-sized procession that is Maharaja grind to a halt for a second or two to linger on this simple and poignant detail.

Maharaja runs through April 8, 2012 at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit asianart.org.

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