Asian Art Newspaper explores the antique treasures from the desert kingdom of Jodhpur in Rajastan, currently on show at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum.
The modern Indian state of Rajasthan, the largest in India, was, before independence, referred to as Rajputana, the Country of the Rajputs (princes). It is situated in the northwest of the country and is comprised of what were formerly over 24 princely states and the small British-administered province of Ajmer-Merwara. They were cobbled together in 1947 as a single state and it now comprises approximately 10 percent of the nation of India. It is bordered by the Pakistani provinces of Punjab to the northwest, Sindh to the west, and Punjab to the north, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh to the northeast, Madhya Pradesh to the southeast and Gujarat to the southwest.
Much of the province is occupied by the Thar Desert, aka the Rajasthan Desert or the Great Indian Desert, which occupies approximately 45 percent of the province. The remaining lands are not particularly conducive to many crops sensitive to poor rainfall, but together with these, the main traditional industries were animal husbandry and stone quarries. It is not as deadly as the infamous Taklamakan Desert dividing the Silk Road to the north of Tibet, but is still a great, generally inhospitable place. For centuries Rajasthan was largely dominated by the ancient Rathore clan which claims to be descended from the god Rama and thus, the sun god Surya.
This exhibition is based on many pieces from two privately-owned Rathore family palaces. The current head of the family and custodian of these palaces is the Maharaja Gaj Singh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, who has preserved the buildings and developed them as museums to record the lives of his predecessors. It is through his herculean efforts that the massive edifice of the Mehrangarh or Mehran Fort in Jodhpur, and his family’s private residence, the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur have been preserved. The remarkable works of art in this truly dazzling exhibition have come as loans both from the family’s palace-museums and from other members of the royal family themselves.
The territorial wars of the Rathores, a family of rulers founded in Marwar in 1226, with other powerful princes account for the great palace-fortress located in the gaunt and mountainous region. The landscape has its own harsh beauty, but the palace-fort of Mehrangarh or Mehran Fort was built around 1460 by Rao Jodha and is one of the largest in India. It creates an otherworldly image, not unlike the Potala Palace in Lhasa, being built atop the bedrock of the 410-foot mesa on which it sits overlooking Jodhpur; it is a truly gargantuan structure of palaces, government offices, barracks and temples of approximately 875,000 square feet/81,300 square metres. As a point of comparison, Buckingham Palace has 828,821 square feet/77,000 square meters, the Louvre has 652,000 square feet/60,600 square metres and the Potala Palace has 721,000 square feet/67,000 square metres. With its massive walls resting on the very edge of the mesa, this so-called Citadel of the Sun appears to be a grand extension of its bedrock, creating an image that Rudyard Kipling once referred to this palace-fort of Mehrangarh as ‘the work of giants’. The catalogue from the exhibition’s venue at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, sums up the otherworldly impression of this site as, ‘one of the most poignant human-made environments in the world. An ambiance of strife-torn, centuries-old power and ineluctable decay comingle there with softly coloured decorations, natural beauty and a sense of secluded elevation from the earthly hubbub’.
Even with over 300 works on view, this exhibition is only a small window into a veritable Aladdin’s cave created over the centuries by the Rathore family.
Both the enormity and importance of it cannot be overstated and it is not just the inclusion of paintings, textiles, weapons, jewellery, palanquins, thrones, robes, carpets, sunshades, fly whisks, foot scrapers and automobiles. It is far more. It is tantamount to being a travelling equivalent exhibition of over 300 works of art from the English Royal Collection. In fact, there are some works of art here from the Royal Collection – Mughal watercolour miniatures depicting scenes at Court with the Emperor and the ever-attendant members of the Rathore family.
The history of Indian miniature paintings dates back to the Palas in northeast India around 758 and depicted religious scenes predominantly. It took the invasion of the Indo-Persian Mughals in 1526 and the great art-loving emperor, Akbar, frequently referred to as Akbar the Great, who ruled from 1556 to 1605. It was this ruler’s powerful artistic influence that caused the previously ongoing creation of the great schools of Indian miniature paintings to expand exponentially – Orissa, Jain, Rajasthan, Pahari, Deccan and, of course Mughal. The exhibition is particularly rich in Rajasthan/Jodhpur works which include those loaned by HM the Queen.
It is not only a dazzling display of the expected categories of rare works of art, there are some parts of the exhibition which are complete surprises, but also unexpected treats such as life-size animal mannequins caparisoned sumptuously for their part in a royal wedding procession; a Stinson L-5 Sentinel aircraft, or ‘Flying Jeep’, and a 1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom, custom-built for use by the female members of the court of Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the present Maharaja. Not only is this vehicle fitted with blue purdah glass windows to shield the ladies from outsiders’ view, but also a spotlight for tiger hunting! The other source for works of art in the exhibition is the Umaid Bhawan Palace, the sixth largest private residence on earth, with a footprint 26 acres and built between 1929 and 1942.
Two works of art from the palace are each notable in their own rights. One is a gilded silver betel nut box in the form of five peafowl, circa 1850, and engraved to Princess Kesar Kanwar. It just goes to illustrate the Indian affection for elements of nature, using, in this case, the conceit of creating miniature boxes in the form of peafowl, much in the same was that mangoes were recreated as gold scent flasks – or, for that matter, elephant heads or tiger heads on furniture or vessels. The second is an 1895 oil painting by the British artist, Bert Harris, Portrait of Maharaja Jaswant Singh II. He is seated in courtly attire wearing the collar, star and sash of the Royal Victorian Order and, like all Indian rulers, is bedecked with jewellery of pearls, semi-precious and precious stones, in this case, a triple strand necklace of emerald pendants. The portrait is so realistically accomplished, using deep shadows as a foil and a soul-revealing face of the ruler that not only does his personality show through, but also his lofty presence.
The most impressive of all the works of art here is a spectacular and rare mahadol-style palanquin. Resembling a domed pavilion, it is made from gilded wood, glass, copper, and an iron alloy and datable from circa 1700 to 1730. The 1730 date is important as it was when it was captured as booty in a war the Maharaja Indra Singh waged against the neighbouring state of Gujarat.
Another example of transport as splendour is an early 20th-century, Jodhpur or North Indian, elephant seat executed in wood, silver, velvet, silver‐gilt thread embroidery, gilded metal finials, cotton frills, enamel, and silk brocade. Splendour was a principal symbol of power in India, be it palaces, forts, jewellery or magnificent processions. The delivery of this message was emphasised by a complete lack of subtlety. Fortunately for those of us who post-date those creations, symbols of power seem to have a way of always being preserved, be they the pyramids of Giza, the Palace of Versailles, or the great collections of rulers – the Royal Collection in the UK, the Hermitage in Russia, or in this case, the treasures of the Rathores.
Today, as viewers, we are most fortunate. Living in the present, we have had the blessing of time which has created a gossamer veil to our vision of one royal family’s collection, never intended to be seen by outsiders, and through which we can appreciate the splendour here through the added lens of beauty.
MARTIN BARNES LORBER
Treasures of a Desert Kingdom: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India, until 2 September, at the Royal Ontario Museum, rom.ca.org. For a list of upcoming events visit the museum’s website