Skip to Content

Art Gallery of Ontario

Keyword Site Search

Art Matters Blog

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 opens: show-stoppers and quiet moments

November 20th, 2010

Finally, after a week of previews, the Maharaja exhibition is now open to EVERYONE. Sure, the people at the oh-so exclusive Gala got to see it before the rest of us, but one thing I learned this week was that actually, they didn’t see the whole thing. Yes, just like a restaurant’s soft opening or the preview week for a new play, the AGO team were still adding finishing touches to the exhibition. Now it’s ready.

What are you going to see? Of course, there are the big moments – the Rolls Royce, the silver carriage, and the famous Patiala necklace made by Cartier for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh in 1928.

The original necklace had only 2,930 diamonds; the yellow diamond that was the centrepiece weighed over 234 carats. Over time, many of the diamonds were sold, but Cartier bought back what it could find and restored the necklace, this time filling the missing stones with zirconia and synthetic rubies.

The show stoppers are great, but the real beauty of the exhibition is in taking one’s time with many of the quieter pieces, such as the many miniature paintings and long scrolls that reveal an exquisite style of beauty and storytelling as seen in South Asia.

You’ll see how the scroll paintings, of processions that depict the various groups of people who would be participate in such an affair, are similar to the room-commanding painting of the Delhi Durbar in 1903 (which does the exact same thing).

A sense of history comes through as well. This was a period of great change as the smaller kingdoms, who had survived and ruled as the great Mughal Empire crumbled, then had to meet the challenge of a new power in South Asia – the British. Finally, as their actual powers diminished further, the Maharajas became more famous for what they bought (check out the Art Deco room for that lifestyle) than what they represented. At the time of India and Pakistan’s independence, when the princely states were absorbed into the new nation states, they had to adapt again, some becoming hoteliers, others politicians, for example.

The story of the Maharajas is the story of power being reinvented again and again. This exhibition shows that in the form of art and material objects as styles changed according to the times.

All I know is that many of the the images I saw delighted my mind and my captured my heart. I’ll be visiting again. Will you?

  • Tell us what your favourites are from the exhibition. We would love to hear from you and highlight them on the blog.

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

The Maharaja Press Preview

November 17th, 2010

Look, it’s a scrum, and it’s not even Parliament Hill! At the AGO’s press preview on Tuesday morning, the guest of honour His Highness Yuvraj Saheb Mandhatasinhji of Rajkot did get surrounded in front of his Star of India Rolls Royce, on loan for the Maharaja exhibition (something the Victoria & Albert Museum didn’t even have).

Of course, this is not how the Press Preview began. We began with a showcase of the Indian classical dance form Bharat Natyam, which will be performed throughout the run of the exhibition in the gallery space along with other kinds of South Asian performances (including virtuoso sitar player Anwar Khurshid).

Of course, no gathering that involved coffee, tea, and mango-pineapple skewers could take place without the obligatory speeches. AGO CEO Matthew Teitelbaum pointed out that he could see this exhibition as the kind that would encourage the younger generation to bring the elders and ask the question, ‘What does this mean to you?’

Also there were the Honourable Minister Michael Chan for Tourism and Culture, as well as other sponsors including Prem Watsa (Fairfax Financial), Philip Crawley (Globe and Mail), Phil Lind (Rogers Communications) and Sabi Marwah (Scotiabank Inc.). Anna Jackson had (in my opinion) the best title of all the attendees: Deputy Keeper of the Victorian and Albert Museum’s Asia Department. She spent two years working on the original Maharaja exhibition that ran at the V&A from October 2009 until January 2010.

The real fun began when we were officially given the go-ahead to disperse and finally see the exhibition on the second floor. Sure, I’m the blogger-in-residence and may have bias from just listening in on all the hard work done by the AGO team to re-create and re-imagine the original V&A exhibition, but I found the show to be a wonderfully immersive experience with a soundscape that changed from room to room, black and white video footage of actual maharaja processions projected onto walls and, of course, the objects themselves.

I could go on, but isn’t is always better to leave readers wanting more?

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

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