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A show fit for maharajas

One of the contenders for the most spectacular pieces of jewellery ever created surely is a necklace made by Cartier for the Maharaja of Patiala in 1928, writes Tasneem Nashrulla.

india Updated: Aug 30, 2009 01:26 IST
Tasneem Nashrulla

One of the contenders for the most spectacular pieces of jewellery ever created surely is a necklace made by Cartier for the Maharaja of Patiala in 1928.

The ceremonial piece, originally containing 2,930 diamonds weighing a thousand carats, was part of the single largest commission that Cartier ever executed. It vanished at the end of the Raj, but its remnants, found in 1998 in a second-hand jewellery shop in London, were restored by Cartier over four years. This exquisite item is one of 250 objects to go on display at Britain’s Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum as part of the Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts exhibition from October 10, 2009 to January 17, 2010.

The exhibition is the first time that the world of India’s maharajas and their cultural and social significance has been explored on such a scale. Deepika Ahlawat, V&A’s research curator on the project, says, “People in Britain and India think they know who the maharajas are — fantasy figures who bought a lot of jewellery and shopped at Harrod’s. But these minor details camouflage their larger role in history. We want to rectify the stereotypes.”

Not only is V&A exhibiting objects from its own collection and those in Europe and the US, but as many as 71 precious items from the Indian royals’ private collections in Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Indore, Baroda and Gwalior, are on loan to the UK for the first time.

The Maharana of Mewar has loaned a majority of the objects, like paintings, a gaddi, insignias, animal jewellery and crystal pieces from his private collection — the largest crystal collection in the world. Personal items of Maharaja Gaj Singh II, paintings, a howdah, a palanquin, an elephant jewel and a silver model of Mehrangarh Fort come from the Mehrangarh Museum Trust of Jodhpur.

An invaluable Raja Ravi Varma paining from the 19th century has been borrowed from the Maharaja of Baroda while the Scindias of Gwalior have lent costumes belonging to Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner. A princess’ sari and a photograph of Rani Sita Devi of Kapurthala, famed for her beauty, have also been granted to the museum by her granddaughter.

The exhibition has taken Ahlawat and fellow V&A curator Anna Jackson more than 18 months to put together. Says Ahlawat, “All the items have been given to us out of goodwill, free of cost. Acquiring the objects was the least of our problems.”

From then on, it has been a “cumbersome” task — from coordinating with multiple Indian bodies like the National Museum in Delhi, Archeological Survey of India, and the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, to obtaining various permits and NOCs, from mounting and insuring the objects, to packaging and shipping them.

What seems ironic is that Indians themselves have not been treated to an exhibition of such magnitude. “A lack of central rallying points and poor implementation” is what has denied us an opportunity to appreciate our culture, believes Dr Roopa Patel, former head of art at the British Council.

Having organised the celebrated Enduring Image exhibition in India in 1997, which put together the widest selection of objects from the British Museum ever assembled for an exhibition overseas, Patel knows the mammoth effort required for such an event. She says, “Here, creative responsibility is diluted among several government agencies: Where do funds come from? Who sponsors the show? Who is in charge?” All unanswered questions that have so far deprived India of its own privileged history.