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'Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts' in San Francisco

'Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts,' at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, presents 200 objects documenting India's past royalty.

November 06, 2011|By Michael J. Ybarra, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Portrait of Maharana Amar Singh II of Mewar. 1700-1750. Opaque watercolor on cloth.
Portrait of Maharana Amar Singh II of Mewar. 1700-1750. Opaque watercolor… (Asian Art Museum / Asian…)

Reporting from San Francisco — — The watercolor portrait of the king is not exactly subtle, but it is pretty. Amar Singh II, the ruler of the Mewar kingdom in India, fills the cloth, his coral-colored gown billowing to the edges of the painting. One hand grips a bejeweled sword, while the other delicately holds a flower toward his nose. A golden halo surrounds his feathered turban. After all, he could trace his lineage back thousands of years to the god-king Rama.

The painting, from the 18th century, is an icon of power — and a fitting symbol for a new show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts" presents almost 200 objects documenting the glory and extravagance of the subcontinent's royalty over three centuries of tumultuous change. The exhibition — which was organized by London's Victoria and Albert Museum — runs through April 8.

The show unfolds across a sweeping historical background, beginning with the decline of India's Mughal Empire in the 18th century, when political authority shifted to the British East India Co., which in turn gave way to formal colonization by the British in 1858. Under British rule, the maharajahs went from sovereigns to vassals, although they continued to largely run their kingdoms for the crown for the better part of another century.

Maharajah is Sanskrit for "great king," and, somewhat ironically, the arc of the exhibition demonstrates how the princes tipped from secular and scared leaders to indolent irrelevancies. That path was littered with lovely art, finely crafted weapons, jewels and exquisite textiles.

By the 20th century, many maharajahs attended British schools and traveled to Europe, spending lavishly on luxury goods. Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, for example, commissioned Cartier to string together almost 3,000 diamonds into a necklace showcasing a 235-carat yellow diamond — a photo of which is in the exhibition.

Maharajah Yeshwant Rao Holkar II and his wife seemed as at home in Paris as in India. Man Ray photographed them on numerous occasions, usually loosening up the couple by playing jazz for them to dance to before taking pictures. One black-and-white print from 1930 shows the maharajah smiling at his wife, who is bent over backward, practically falling into his lap. Bernard Boutet de Monvel painted matching pictures of the couple dressed in elegant Western evening wear, the maharajah as thin and poised as a stork.

The glory days of the maharajahs ended when India gained its independence in 1947. The new states of India and Pakistan absorbed most of the kingdoms, although the princes continued to enjoy royal privileges until a constitutional amendment backed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ended those perks in 1971. Some maharajahs found themselves impoverished and turned their palaces into hotels. Others sold their personal belongings to museums.

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