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Working on the Maharaja exhibition: Haema Sivanesan

January 21st, 2011

This summer I spoke with Adjunct Curator Stephen Inglis about the process of putting the Maharaja exhibition together. Now that it’s done, I thought it would be a good time to talk with Exhibition Assistant, Haema Sivanesan, who played an integral role in the community consultation process. Her job also included obtaining the loan of the ‘Star of India’ Rolls Royce!

What were your first impressions of the project?

I did have reservations about if this was going to be the first exhibition that the AGO was going to do that looked at Indian art history, whether this was the right framing of such an exhibition. I still wonder about that, just because it looks at a very complex period. But having said that I think, obviously, the response speaks for itself, meaning the critical response. And I think people are incredibly appreciative of the AGO putting on a show like this.

How would you describe your job?

There was the curatorial aspect, the programming aspect, working with the community and working through that feedback, and then the design aspect, working very closely with the designers on the layout and working on the details of that. A lot of it is following up on details and I guess when I say ‘curatorial’ – it’s really about working with the objects. What does this object mean? How does it fit with the thematic of the exhibition? What does it say to people? What does it represent? And how do you physically contextualize it in the space of the gallery?

What percentage of the objects were new to the Toronto show?

70% of the show is new objects. And most of that was brought in by the V&A [where the show originated]. The V&A found loans to replace loans that we weren’t able to obtain. And we supplemented it with Canadian loans.

The elephant and howdah were from the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. The silver carriage wasn’t in the original show [nor was the current Rolls Royce]. In a way, it’s a very different show to what London audiences would have seen.*

Now that it is up, how do you feel?

Tired [laughter]. There are some really, really, incredible pieces in the exhibition and it feels really good. We were worried about how we were going to house so many objects (there are 200+) and accommodate everything that needed to go in  - whether it was text panels or security casing – because you are working at that level of detail through the process. Then to just see it all looking almost seamless – that’s really rewarding. It looks beautiful and I think people are responding really well.

Haema Sivanesan is the Executive Director of SAVAC, the South Asian Visual Arts Centre.

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

[*Ed. note: In the original post, Sivanesan mentioned that the Patiala Necklace was not in the V&A exhibition. Thanks to Asma Mahmood who pointed out that it was on display in London.]

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