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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.]

Maharaja: The final meeting of the Community Advisory Board

November 15th, 2010

The corks were popped, the bubbly poured (well, prosecco) and who pops by at the very end of the last week’s final meeting of the Community Advisory Board but Mr. AGO himself, Matthew Teitelbaum.

What was talked about in the final meeting? We couldn’t ignore the fact that the curatorial team was bubbling over in excitement. They had just seen some of the jewels be installed. Couriers from the V&A and The British Museum have come to make sure their precious items have arrived safely.

The AGO marketing department also presented, showing mock-ups of the ad campaign, as well plans for where they will pop up. Not quite planes, trains and automobiles. Instead, Pearson Airport, TTC streetcars, Brampton buses, billboards in the suburbs, and even in elevators throughout the GTA. There were also ad dollars being spent beyond the usual AGO media suspects, with a foray into South Asian media.

What has been particularly interesting about this committee is the kind of debates that have come up. Most have underlined that the difficulty of trying to label a community or even the committee as united under the term ‘South Asian’ or ‘Indian’. Everyone seems to have a different sense of identification with their ethnic background, whether it is as specific as Punjabi or Tamil, or its influence on their artistic sensibility.

For example, one of the pictures for the ad campaign is a black and white photo of the Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. It’s a gorgeous photo of what regal looks like and was admired for its sense of style, its classic look. But there was an objection. A few of the ads had a black backdrop (like this one), which is not an auspicious colour for Hindus. In fact, it reminded one committee member of death.

And that’s what this advisory board has been all about: diversity. It’s been about reminding the AGO of the South Asian communities’ diversity of experience, culture, background and yes, opinion.

  • What do you think about the Advisory Board? We’d love to hear your opinions.

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

India at the AGO – is this one way to gain an audience for Maharaja?

October 21st, 2010

What is the best way to market the Maharaja exhibition to the South Asian community in the GTA? That was the major question posed to advisory committee last week by the the marketing, public relations, and programming departments at the AGO.

So how many people can fit around the table?

The committee was peppered with questions, from where the billboards targeting the South Asian community should go, to what languages should be used for advertising. That question led to a rather energetic debate between some who proposed Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi as the key languages to others who felt it would be unfair to ignore Tamil or Bengali. We definitely proved that the South Asian community is also a group of communities!

Also asked: What would be a great tag-line to go with the exhibition? Something with a call-to-action. What’s an example? The one that got everyone in the room aha-ing was the AGO’s own ad campaign, the catchy “Gotta Go to the AGO” that ran during the opening of the Frank Gehry redesign.

After some silence – it was a tough question – the discussion revolved around the issue about how to excite folks within these groups to come to Maharaja if they are not regular gallery visitors.  The AGO voices around the table recognize that minorities still don’t feel like the AGO is theirs.  It’s one reason the advisory committee was convened.

So the question shifted – how important is it to a minority community to see themselves in a mainstream space? Pretty darned important is a paraphrase of the answer.

One suggestion was tapping into cultural pride. Would something like “India at the AGO” on a billboard in Brampton draw 905-ers downtown? Or would that alienate people with a Pakistani background? (Check out an earlier blog post: What makes Maharaja a Risky Business.)

What do you think? Tell us your ideas about attracting new audiences to the AGO’s upcoming Maharaja exhibition.

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

Free 25 and Under for Maharaja exhibition

September 28th, 2010

Yup, the title says it all. If you are 25 and under, you will be able to check out the Maharaja exhibit for FREE!  Not only that, you will also be able to take in the rest of the AGO for free too!

This is all thanks to a sponsorship deal led by companies with executives of South Asian origin, including Prem Watsa, Chairman and CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd.; Nadir Mohamed, President and CEO of Rogers Communications Inc.; and Sabi Marwah, Vice-Chairman and Chief Operating Officer of the Scotiabank Group.

In my opinion, this is an interesting example of the diversity effect rippling through Canadian institutions. When organizations reflect the make-up of a country, new kinds of projects get funded.

So it is great that the AGO itself listened to the Community Advisory Board’s views regarding the South Asian community’s approach to culture. We travel in packs, often three generations at a time. The result is that the family pack admission will cost $66 and applies to up to 4 adults (a savings of 25% since a single ticket is $22!).

Let’s face it, we’ve all heard the complaints about the high ticket prices to Toronto’s cultural hot spots. Why can’t they all be free the way they are in some other cities? We may not be there yet, but this seems like a good place to start.

* The Free Under 25 program runs throughout the exhibition except during the holiday period from December 24, 2010 to January 2, 2011.

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

Take a peek at the Maharaja Model

September 16th, 2010

Summer is over. The Toronto International Film Festival is on, and a new crop of shows is opening at the AGO. It is also only two months until the Maharaja exhibition opens on November 20, 2010. So what has the the AGO team been working on all summer?

A model.

To paraphrase the classic film This is Spinal Tap, as the band’s manager looks at the model-sized Stonehenge that is to appear on stage: “This is it?”

Rex Rajendran, Camilla Singh, Rina Singh, Devyani Saltzman and Shiralee Hudson

Okay, okay, all kidding aside, during last week’s Community Advisory Board meeting, we had the opportunity to take a look at the almost finished plan for the show. What was interesting to hear was that the team had taken suggestions from the group when it came to ideas regarding the look of the show, such as using archways and jali-style, lattice-work windows throughout the space. Sound will be used to add to the ambiance of the various rooms.

From the beginning, the team led by curator Stephen Inglis knew they wanted to rework the layout of the original V&A show. It was considered too dark and confusing. For Toronto, some of the changes are dramatically different, such as switching the very first item visitors will see, the colours on the walls, and even the lighting on information panels.

Now if only they could find some space in the exhibition for the model.

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

The Maharaja Advisory Board, Part 2

July 26th, 2010

In my last post about the AGO’s desi ‘aunties and uncles’, I gave you a big picture view of the community advisory board’s mandate.

Now it’s time for the particulars. We get asked all sorts of questions about all sorts of topics: what kind of arts programming do we want to see; who are the media players in the South Asian community; what colours would work best on the walls of the exhibit; and even ideas for a more interactive gallery experience.

In the very first meeting in May, Stephen Inglis, the adjunct curator of the AGO show, presented the actual Victoria & Albert Museum version of the Maharaja exhibit via powerpoint.  Although the objects were incredibly beautiful, one person thought the layout looked “really dry and boring.” 

So, the committee discussed ideas about how to animate Maharaja. One hope was to have a performance space within the exhibit, especially one that could highlight the range of classical Indian music, much of which was nurtured through the royal courts over the centuries.

In another meeting, the marketing department asked us how to entice folks who don’t normally come to the Gallery.  Here it was suggested that the AGO organize bus trips from, for example, Mississauga, to make the visit more like a special event and cancel out the great suburban fear of having to find parking downtown.

Others pointed out many in the South Asian community do cultural events en famille, which means a trip to the gallery is a multi-generational event. And they’ll be expecting good food as part of their ‘day trip’!

Oh dear, family and food – sounds like one big fat South Asian cliché.  Of course, that’s how I do it too. The special family excursion to the AGO usually includes 3 generations – my mother, my brother, my husband and our daughter – and, uh, brunch as well.

Sure, not every suggestion will be implemented, but it’s good to see the conversation at the AGO is becoming more inclusive.

What would you like to see as part of your AGO and Maharaja experience?

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

The Maharaja’s Aunties and Uncles aka The Advisory Board

July 14th, 2010

Call me crazy, but I like meetings. Of course, the fact that I work from home as a writer may totally explain what others may see as simply bizarre fetish. And one of the best parts of this Maharaja blogging gig is to come to the AGO and see what a disparate set of heads knocked together may produce!

Milan Shahani, Sanjay Shahani, Lally Marwah, Debashis Sinha, Douglas Peers

My favourite meetings are when the advisory board comes together, whose members are mainly part of the South Asian arts and culture scene here in Toronto.

Its purpose?

To be a sort of sounding board for the AGO’s Maharaja exhibition team.  Curators, interpretative planners and folks from departments such as marketing, publicity and community outreach ask for opinions on their plans and, well, they receive them.

Our brief?

  • Consider how to reshape the exhibition for a Canadian audience
  • Suggest programming ideas
  • Make the AGO more accessible for new audiences
  • Developing stronger connection to local South Asian communities
  • Sustain that connection going forward

It’s cool that the AGO realized the importance of this kind of bridge-building as well as relying on expertise that already exists within the GTA.  I should know. I used to be on the Friends of South Asia committee at the Royal Ontario Museum and for the most part, the above mandate applied to that group as well (except the FSA supported an on-going gallery rather than a large-scale exhibition).

Although the SAVAC South Asian Visual Collective’s Haema Sivanesan is part of the actual AGO exhibition team, that organization is not the advisory board. Instead, those involved come from a variety of disciplines including literature, costume design, dance, visual arts, history and more, all totally appropriate to this kind of general interest exhibition.

In the next few posts, I’ll write more about the kind of brainstorming that is taken place behind not-so-closed doors.

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

The making of a show – Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts

May 25th, 2010

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind-the-scenes to bring a new exhibition to the AGO? Is it an exact copy of the original show? Do some pieces get left behind? Who decides what changes are made? How do visitors get to have their say before the show opens?

A royal procession

Image: Procession of Raja Ram Singh II of Kota and his son at Kota, c. 1850, © V&A Images/ Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Welcome to a new blog series dedicated to answering such questions for the upcoming November exhibition, Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts.  This is the North American debut of a show that first opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London last year.

I will be your blogger-in-residence (the palace blogger, perhaps?), your personal guide to the process of putting this exhibit together. In weekly posts, I’ll cover community consultations and meetings with the design team, look at some of the region’s history, and elaborate on a few of the 200 plus extraordinary works of art – paintings, photography, armour and jewellery – that will be on display.

We’ll have the chance to consider what these beautiful objects, which range from the beginning of the eighteenth century onwards, reveal about the role of kings whose powers were severely limited by the British colonial rule over India.

But most importantly, this blog is where you can start a conversation with us. What are your questions for the AGO team? What sort of programming to accompany the exhibit excites you? Perhaps you have a story about a personal link to a princely state or you have photos of the great palaces that can be uploaded to a Flickr stream that you can share with us.

I look forward to having you join me on a new way to experience an AGO exhibition!

Piali Roy is a Toronto freelance writer with a long-held interest in South Asian culture and history.

Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Court runs from November 20, 2010 until February 27, 2011.