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The History of Tea

January 21st, 2011

Tea is the most culturally and economically significant non-alcoholic beverage in the world, after water. Mostly grown in China and India (tea cultivation in India was begun in the 19th century by the British), 98% of teas are black teas created through a fermentation process. Popular in Europe from the 17th century it reached its height of popularity in the 1880s. The tea bag was invented by Thomas Sullivan in 1908 and iced tea became popular after it was served at the St. Louis World Fair of 1904. Tea was considered an appropriate drink for women, as drinking alcohol was not ladylike. The term teetotaling actually meant an abstinence from alcohol.

In the early part of the 19th century, the Boulton family at The Grange and their friends would usually have had two meals—breakfast and an early supper. As the century moved on and men went out to offices to work, a midday meal would have been served and supper would have been much later. Afternoon tea (or low tea) helped fill the gap between lunch and supper. This tea would have consisted of cakes, cookies, and small sandwiches. There are references to Harriet and Goldwin Smith having tea together in The Grange library. High tea, or meat tea, was a much more sustaining meal eaten as an early supper around six in the evening. This is still common in agricultural communities where lunch is the main meal of the day.

If that has whet your appetite for tea, please join us at one of our upcoming tea inspired events.

Jennifer Rieger, Historic Site Coordinator of The Grange, Art Gallery of Ontario

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.]

Inside the Maharaja Talks: The Durbar of 1877

January 17th, 2011

The Durbar of 1877: A Collision of Classes and Cultures
Wednesday January 19, 7:00pm to 8:30pm
Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario

The first of three Durbars held in Delhi, the 1877 Durbar was an extravagant celebration of the proclamation of Queen Victoria as the first Empress of India. Queen Victoria was not actually there, but Indian princes mingled with Britain’s colonial elite during this painstakingly choreographed and lavishly decorated celebration of her rule. For all the pomp, one would never guess that this Durbar was staged during one of the most crippling famines in 19th century India.

Historian Douglas Peers will explore the implications of these stark contradictions in his talk, this Wednesday evening at 7pm.

Inside the Maharaja Talks: Indian Popular Culture

January 10th, 2011

Air India`s Maharaja mascot, first developed by designer Bobby Kooka and Umesh Rao in 1946.

The first in a series of five talks accompanying the Maharaja exhibition, “Palace on Wheels”: Marketing the Maharajas by the exhibition’s adjunct curator, Stephen Inglis, considers the forms in which India’s royal rulers have been represented in popular culture. It traces some of the close relations between Maharajas and museums, hotels, transport and tourism. This includes a look at how India has constructed a self-image drawing upon the royal courts, not only for foreign consumption but also for internal identity building.

As an anthropologist, curator and lecturer, Dr. Inglis has specialized in South Asian artists and their communities and in Canadian folk art and craft traditions.

New Maharaja Online Education Resource

January 10th, 2011

Delve into the art and themes of the special exhibition Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts in a fun and interactive way!

AGO School Programs has launched an online resource designed to expand the experience of the exhibition for teachers, students, and anyone who is interested in exploring the exhibition further. Get up close and personal with some of the artworks and objects using the zoom tool to preview the exhibition before your visit, or learn more after visiting. Thought-provoking questions help guide you as you explore the objects in detail and help you to imagine what life was like at the time of the Maharajas. Try it!

What connections can we make today to the lives of Maharajas? Extend your experience and make contemporary links to the themes explored in the exhibition using Tumblr, a blogging site. Engage with the relevant connections we’ve presented and add to our growing commentary. Blog and reblog your own experiences of procession, power, cross-cultural influence, gorgeous clothing, fabulous jewellery, and hot cars. Check it out and add your two cents!

Teachers Resource

Maharaja Highlight: The Best Wheels in Town

January 3rd, 2011

The 1934 Rolls Royce Phantom II, more often known as The Star of India, is currently on view in the Maharaja exhibition. The car was custom built for His Highness Thakore Sahib Dharmendrasinhji Lakhajiraj of Rajkot and is named after the famous 5,630-carat star sapphire, The Star of India.

Rolls Royce

For those of you interested in what’s under the hood; the car is a 7 litre V8, 6 cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed manual, which can output 40 to 50 horse power. It has a total of 14 headlights, including adaptive curve lights that follow the movement of the steering wheel, and an all-weather torpedo convertible top custom made by Thrupp Maberly. The car is the only saffron coloured Rolls Royce in the world and, visible on all doors and side windows is Rajkot’s state crest with an inscription meaning “an impartial ruler of men of all faiths”.

Until recently, The Star of India has had its home in Germany, and was owned by Hans-Guenter Zach. When Yuvraj Saheb Mandhatsinhji Jadeja of Rajkot (the great-grandson of original owner His Highness Thakore Sahib of Rajkot), became aware that the Star was being put up for sale at auction, he enrolled himself as as a telephone bidder at the Sporting Classics of Monaco auction. Needless to say, he was successful. The final price came to 644,000 Euros, but no price can be put on the gratification that resulted from bringing The Star back to India.

So, what’s next for The Star of India? Following its stop at the AGO, it will return to India, to a private museum. The car will only be used on rare occasions such as religious, or cultural events. It will also be on view for visitors to Rajkot.

Bling Beyond Belief

December 28th, 2010

As the saying goes, diamonds are a girl’s (and boy’s) best friend. And size is everything! Speaking of, how does a necklace with 2,930 diamonds, weighing almost 1,000 carats sound?

Those are the original dimensions of the famed Patiala Necklace, on display in the Maharaja exhibition. This magnificent work of art is the largest ever commission from the House of Cartier, and once adorned the neck of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala.

Singh remained a notorious Maharaja even after his reign from 1900 to 1938. He is credited with putting the state of Patiala on the political map with his contributions to architectural and cultural developments. Above all, he was most known for was his wealth and extravagance.

Most Maharajas indulged in the finer things in life – custom designed Rolls Royces, rare and antique dress, detailed self portraits from some of India’s most renowned artists – all the things that have made such a magnificent exhibition a reality. The Patiala Necklace is only one of many priceless gems in the Maharaja exhibition, but is certainly one worth bragging about.

Share your thoughts on your own priceless gems here on our community blog or on our AGO facebook page.


December 19th, 2010

In anticipation of the Maharaja exhibition, the cafe AGO team was busy developing new menu items we thought our visitors would enjoy. One of the ideas was to sell boxed lunches to make decisions easy and convenient for families.

I thought this was a great idea and was talking about it with one of my friends, who said it reminded her of ‘tiffins’, which were popular in India. I decided to risk appearing completely unworldly and asked what the heck she was talking about. I was thoroughly intrigued when she informed me that many Indians have home-cooked lunches delivered to them at work every day!

Indian lunch box known as a Dabba

Clearly this was something that needed to be researched for further clarification, so off to my computer I went. Apparently, it is common in Mumbai and Karachi for office workers to have their lunches delivered by a dabbawala. The dabbawala collects the home-cooked lunch from the person’s home (where it was prepared), then delivers it to the place of work.

Having experienced managing food services, I was trying to wrap my head around how they could possibly pick up these lunches and deliver them all in a timely fashion, considering how many people in India commute to work by train. I was shocked to learn that the Mumbai dabbawalas deliver 200,000 tiffins every day, in less than 3 hours. I was even more astonished to learn that Forbes Magazine gave the Mumbai dabbawalas a six sigma business rating (meaning they make less than 3 mistakes for every million transactions)!

Although the cafe AGO staff will be using a computer to ring in your order, and serving meals on-site, the boxed lunches in the cafe have the same convenience and wholesomeness you would expect if one of your loved ones had prepared it for you. So, when you visit the gallery this month, why not try a tiffin?

Cheryl Wallace, Cafe Manager, Art Gallery of Ontario

What is your favourite part of Maharaja?

December 19th, 2010

Let’s face it, when it comes to picking a few of our favourite things, most people cannot agree. So, when I asked my family what caught their eye after a weekend visit to the AGO, of course, everyone had a different answer.

Bageshree Vaze, Vineet Vyas and Kalashree Vyas

My mother loved the antique saris and the paintings but, what was particularly memorable were the performances by Kathak dancer Bageshree Vaze and her husband, tabla player Vineet Vyas,  (I had timed our visit so we could catch them). Bageshree did a great job telling the story of her dance form and its role in courtly culture.  In fact, we spent enough time at the exhibition that we saw quite a few performances – all different.

The kid and I chatted mostly about the game case. If you know the board game Pop-a-matic Trouble or play Parcheesi,  you’ll recognize Chaupar. We noticed that instead of two dice there were three. And they weren’t cubes, but looked like mini gold bars. The dots were also different – they were rubies.

My husband spent a lot of time looking at the same case. He seemed enchanted by the eleven-in-one game box, made for Krishnaraja Wodeyar III of Mysore. My sister-in-law, on the other hand, fell for the black and white photos of the fashionable set in what could be called the Art Deco room.

Of course, one person did have a complaint. My brother was intrigued by the gaddi, and was thrilled to see a letter by the Rani of Jhansi (we grew up reading Indian history comic books). She was a favourite because she would later lead troops into battle during the 1857 Mutiny against British rule). He just wished there was more of a discussion of imperial policies as a counterpoint to all the opulence in the rooms.

Fair point. Yet, isn’t that what a good exhibit should do, leave you wanting to learn more?

  • Tell us what are your favourite parts of the Maharaja Exhibition?

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