Royal display
The famous relics of the period of the Raj are on display at a 14-week exhibition in Chicago
Lalit Mohan

We may have thrown them into the dustbin of history, but India’s erstwhile maharajas have a certain mystique that attracts voyeurs the world over. Whether it is their decadence or opulence, they still have their TRPs. To showcase their life and times, the Victoria and Albert Museum of London has brought its famed collection of relics of the Raj for a 14-week exhibition to Chicago. This show, titled Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts, which will be on till February 3, 2013, at the Field Museum of Natural History, displays more than 200 artefacts dating from around 1700 to the 1940s and includes jewellery, ornate weaponry, royal costumes, thrones and other furniture, stunning artworks and rare photographs and film footage. Some of the objects are on loan from the Imperial War Museum and private collections.

The recreated Patiala necklace on display
The recreated Patiala necklace on display

The show was launched in mid-October at a gala social event, which was attended by 800 guests, including Arvind Singh of the flowing, parted-beard visage, a portrait of whose early 18th century ancestor Amar Singh of Mewar is a part of the display.

Rajput, Maratha and Sikh princes and princesses of yore are well-represented in this display, but a few from the south and the Nawab of Bahawalpur also make the scene. The piece de resistance is the Patiala necklace created by Cartier for Bhupinder Singh, the state’s ruler, which originally contained 2,930 diamonds (including the yellow 234.69-carat DeBeers diamond). It disappeared in the 1940s, and surfaced again 50 years later with many of the gems missing. Cartier, then, recreated it with new gems and synthetic stones.

From the pomp and circumstance of the royal court to the inner sanctum of the private chambers, Maharaja also shows visitors the throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a ruler's silver howdah, a gold ankush, a turban embellished with gold, diamonds, emeralds and rubies, a wine flask similarly encrusted, ornate musical instruments, fly-swatters made of yak's hair, swords and armour fit for princes (but not necessarily tested in battle.) The steel 'tiger claw' with which Shivaji disemboweled Afzal Khan is a part of the collection.

Miniatures and tapestries of the style that came down from the Mughals also on display, including a 30-foot painting of a procession of an erstwhile ruler of Mysore. From the same region, there is the sword of Tipu Sultan, which was taken from him after his death in battle. The relics include his saddle cloth and flintlock pistol.

Among the photographs is one of the beautiful Molly Fink, an Australian nurse who married Raja Martand of Pudokottai, a state in south India, in 1915. She being neither Indian nor of blue-blooded lineage, the British refused to grant recognition to their son as the raja's heir. The gallant ruler then did an Edward VIII and renounced his throne. (There is no mention at the exhibition, however, of a similar marriage by the Kapurthala raja, Jagatjit Singh with Anita Delgado, a Spanish cabaret artist. That dalliance escaped punitive action because she was his fifth wife and he already had heirs from his other ranis).

The throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh
The throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh

From the paintings and photographs one sees that at the end of the 19th century, Indian rajas were beginning to adopt the dress and court style of the English rulers. The idea of oil on canvas painting was a British contribution. There is one of Ranji in cricket gear, as well. Among the films is a black and white one of the durbar of King George V and Queen Mary in Delhi in 1911. It shows all Indian maharajas paying obeisance to their majesties and withdrawing backwards all the way to their seats. Sayaji Rao Gaekwad of Baroda, however, breaches protocol by turning his back on the royal couple. It was the practical thing to do and there is no mention of any slap on the wrist that he may have received as a consequence of this effrontery. Lord Curzon once described Indian princes as "half-Anglicised, half-denationalised, European-women-hunting, pseudo-sporting, and very often in the end spirit-drinking young native chiefs." As a show depicting their lives, Maharaja is a little too sober. Bhupinder Singh was a known stud, but all we see of him is a mug shot, necklace, turban jewels and all, or him inspecting the 'Patiala regiment' in WWII. There is nothing of his extra-curricular activities or of similar shenanigans of others of his ilk.

The maharajas may have faded away but their esoteric world fascinates the West and draws crowds to any exhibition that showcases their life and splendor.