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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

The Maharaja’s Rolls Royce

November 10th, 2010

The AGO held its first official photo op for the Maharaja exhibition Tuesday morning. Media were invited to check out the Star of India, a Rolls Royce Phantom II, custom-built in 1934 for His Highness Thakore Sahib Dharmendrasinhji Lakhajiraj of Rajkot (Gujarat).

If you’ve heard of the “Star of India”, it is also the name of 563-carat Star Sapphire.  This Rolls Royce Phantom II is considered to be a particularly important. There is even a model kit so  you can make your own piece of history!

It is rather beautiful with a unique ochre-saffron colour. The royal family’s motto and state crest is embossed on the doors and side windows. The inscription means “An impartial ruler of men of all faiths.”

Rolls Royce cars were popular with the wealthy set in India. Over 800  were exported to India in first half of the 20th century. In fact, India was the largest market for the Rolls during the interwar period. The BBC recently put together a documentary about the maharajas’ madness for the Rolls, titled The Maharaja’s Motor Car: The Story of Rolls-Royce.

Here is a longer clip from the documentary.

In the 1960s, the car became British-owned and later, was brought to Germany. This year the Rolls Royce Phantom II was on auction again in May and was purchased by the great-grandson of the original owner! This amazing vehicle was not in the original Maharaja exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Instead, after much sleuthing and negotiations, the AGO team was able to intercept it and get it as a loan before the Phantom II returns to India after a half-century abroad.

Neat fact: Mahatma Gandhi also has a connection to Rajkot. His father moved there when he was young to become the Diwan or Prime Minister for the Thakore of Rajkot.

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