THIS is a story about a throne. No, not about a reign or a dynasty, nor about the shadowy powers that usually lurk behind a throne. But, literally about the making, the fabrication by hand, of a throne; more precisely, of a replica of a throne.
And it relates, once again, to the major exhibition on Sikh Heritage in Art that was mounted at the National Museum in Delhi, under the title Piety and Splendour, just a few months back. I have drawn the readers attention to that exhibition before but, for the present story to make sense, it is necessary to go back, in the barest outline, to the circumstances in which the exhibition came about. The first intention of the Government was for the exhibition on the Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms, which was held at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London in 1999, to be brought to Delhi for a showing here, as a part of the tercentenary celebrations of the founding of the Khalsa. Negotiations with the V&A about that show travelling to India broke down, however, for reasons that are too complex and painful to go into here. But what this meant, in plain words, was that a completely new exhibition, conforming to international standards, had to be conceived and built upwards from scratch, using exclusively Indian resources and collections, and all within a period of four months. Reduced to practical terms, it meant identifying more than 200 objects from various collections, negotiating loans, photographing the objects, conceiving a design, writing a catalogue, having it printed, gathering all objects physically in the National Museum, and, eventually, installing them meaningfully in the form of a show. The sheer magnitude of the work involved, and the diverse-ness of it, was staggering: it could send any head spinning. But it had to be done, and that too before the tercentenary year ran out.
Because a formal announcement of the exhibition had
already been made; there was a natural anticipation about
the show on the part of the Punjabi community; and,
somewhere, by this time, a feeling of national pride had
come into play.
Somehow, I was in the midst of all this, having been appointed Commissioner of the Exhibition by the Government of India. The experience was sobering: I had wonderful support from a number of people whom I hand-picked for the work, but also the most obdurate non-cooperation from another group whose defining feature was incompetence or whose aim, plainly, was sabotage. But it was all done: the exhibition did open on time, in March; it looked wonderful, visually; a splendid catalogue, of which any institution could be proud, was also published. But this note is not about me, or the show as a whole: it is about the making of a throne, I have to remind myself. In the very initial stages, when there was talk of the V&A show coming here, and its being differently installed than at the V&A , I had visualized that a major section of the exhibition will centre round the throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, which belonged to the London Museum. The logic was obvious: it is a fine, and unusual, object in its own right; and, as a symbol of power, it was liable to touch off resonances in the mind. But, now that nothing was coming from abroad, that key object was going to be missing from my plans. However, not giving up on this, I decided to have a replica of the throne made here.
What followed from this decision was sheer mayhem on the one hand, and the emergence of a new sense of pride in our craftsmanship, on the other. The work was entrusted to Payal Khurana, who runs an old furniture and new accessories studio in Delhi. She had the right contacts with the right craftsmen. They were located somewhere in the galis of old Delhi, and were willing, despite the acute shortage of time, to undertake the work. But there was a major catch: they had never seen the original, nor had they ever made a throne in their lives before. The work was, in its very nature, complex. The original throne, made by Hafiz Muhammad Multani for the Maharaja in c. 1820, consisted of a wooden core, with intricate repousse work on gold sheets covering it, and was, in its own day, seen as a master-work. But this group of dedicated craftsmen was willing to dare, and take up the challenge. The work was done on a frantic pace: photographs and precise measurements had to be rushed in from England, the right material located in India, queries about specific details involving patterning, finishing, colours, fabric had to be answered almost on an hourly basis by Payal who had to sit with the craftsmen for days on end at their work-place. But, in the end, it was all done. Two days before the exhibition was to open, the Maharajas throne was delivered at the National Museum, and installed under a velvet and gold-thread canopy in one of the galleries. It looked magnificent.
The object was of course shown as a replica, with full credit given to the craftsmen on the labels accompanying the exhibits. But not everyone reads labels with care. For us who had been involved in the entire enterprise, it was a wonderful moment when one of the curators from the Indian section of the V&A who happened then to be in India and was present at the opening came upon the throne, suddenly, in the gallery and took a step back, absolutely startled, amazement written all over his face. The throne was still in England, he thought!
A new interest
I left for the U.S. soon after the exhibition opened. There were many there who had been interested in the exhibition, and were aware of the enormous odds against which we were mounting it in Delhi. Some reports had already reached there, among them that about the splendid replica of the throne. I was asked about what it had cost, roughly, to get the throne made. A rough figure was mentioned. Would it be possible to get another replica made, one of the prominent persons with whom I spent some time, asked? What could I say? I simply passed on the names and address of the makers.