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What makes a Maharaja a Risky Business

June 7th, 2010

I was so excited to sit in on the weekly meeting of all the folks involved with making this exhibit a success.  There were a lot of cool updates such as the search for a royal Rolls Royce (now say that five times fast!) for the show and upcoming AGO appearances at local summer festivals.

Weekly meeting of “Team Maharaja”

What I didn’t realize was that my role as the blogger was also on the agenda! After the initial chitchat about why it would be great for team members to write for the blog and possible topics that they could cover – did someone say Rolls Royce? – a more serious question came up.

How would staff deal with any potential fallout from the community blog? In other words, what about issues management?

Ah, the elephant in the room (yes, I know…I can’t help myself).  History, let alone Indian history, is messy and potentially controversial. It’s a subject that makes even the good folks at Wikipedia wince.

In fact, a variation of the same question arose the next day at the community advisory board’s meeting. What might be some of the objections coming from within the South Asian communities to Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts?

I wasn’t surprised; I, too, was slightly apprehensive when I first heard about the exhibit, especially regarding its title. So here’s a few potential complaints:

An exhibit about royalty, what a cliché! Yup, but don’t we love our royals and celebrities? And yet, like the Europeans courts, the Maharajas were patrons of fine art. If you want to learn about the history of fine art and its changing role, you have to look at the courts and what happened to them.

The Nizam of Hyderabad; Image Credit: TIME magazine

Maharajas are Hindu, right? Although Maharajas are usually Hindu or Sikh, Maharaja is used because it is easily recognizable. In reality, the richest Indian royal was actually the Nizam of Hyderabad whose background was Muslim. Maharaja is merely a short hand for Indian royalty.

Is this only about India? No. The majority of the show’s objects date before the independence of Pakistan and India in 1947 when the area was generally known as India.

What about contemporary art? Local artists? Well, in 2007, the AGO’s Hungry God show displayed the work of contemporary Indian artists including Atul Dodiya, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta. For this exhibit, the team are hoping it will be possible to involve contemporary artists in some way, either through artworks or performances and events. It helps that two veterans of Toronto’s art scene are part of this process – Haema Sivanesan of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) is Project Assistant for Maharaja and Camilla Singh, recently of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), is part of the advisory committee.

It’s interesting how some of these issues seem to be about language, but really, it’s about information and the lack thereof.  That’s why it helps to have this blog, eh?

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history. You can contact her at

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3 Responses to “What makes a Maharaja a Risky Business”

  1. Asma Mahmood says:

    Historically, British favoured Sikhs to Muslims and Hindus in the matter of trusting with loyalties. Reason was that British took power from these two cultural denominations.

    The show in London captures that idea very intelligently and then moves on from there. Part two of the show ends at the letter from the Rani of Jhansi to the British and the last article is a calligraphic piece by the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar…

    The display kind of leaves the things wrapped up in the strange sad past where it belonged and one moves into the glorious area of great painting from the Queen’s collection and videos of the great Dehli durbar of 1903 with King George and a salaami [salute] of 1000 elephants.

    That contrast provides an amazing sense of departure from one era to another.

    I hope the curators are able to capture such areas and thus work better on relieving one of anxiety that can be a companion in such shows where history is volleyed into the courts of various players….

  2. Nikhat says:

    I missed the show in London last fall so I’m ecstatic that it’s making its way to the AGO in Toronto this year!

    I think the exhibit will be well served by historians and curators speaking on a number of topics. The potential area to cover is huge: the culture of royalty, how it evolved in India, royals are patrons of art and culture, the involvement of local artisans, Maharajas as religious intermediaries – Ram as both a King and a God.. the topics are rather endless!

  3. Haema says:

    Hi Asma and Nikhat

    As Asma points out “Maharaja” addresses a complex historical period shaped by conflict and shifting alliances. History certainly was volleyed into the courts of various players. The AGO presentation of this exhibition will remain faithful to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s curatorial vision, but will be adapted for Canadian audiences, including some key pieces from Canadian collections. The exhibition focuses on a period from the 18th-20th century and shows that despite the social and political conflicts, there was a pervasive culture of patronage amongst the maharajas; an abiding passion and support for the arts. Something, I’m sure, Canadian audiences will also value and relate to.

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