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The Walrus magazine’s own Maharaja story

October 15th, 2010

As part of the Maharaja blog, we’ve been running a series called Your Stories where you tell us about some anecdotes and memories that relate to the theme of South Asian royalty.

It turns out that the October issue of The Walrus magazine has its own such charming story. It’s called “The Prince and the The Prophet” and was “told to” Amy Chung.

photo credit: Amy Chung, The Walrus

It’s a piece about an Indian man raised in Kenya who immigrated to Canada in 1973, and retired to the banks of the Narmada River in western India. It was only in Toronto that he took up Hindu-style astrology, but it was in India that he received a special request.

One summer evening seven years ago, I was at my home in Kumbheshwar, a village in western India surrounded by temples, when an old man arrived on my doorstep. He introduced himself as the secretary to Prince Manvendra Singh Gohil, gesturing to the young man standing beside him. Indian royalty, while stripped of its authority after partition, still commands respect, but his title didn’t impress me. He looked like a simple man, very straightforward.

While the prince sat quietly enjoying the scenery from my terrace, his secretary told me of the young man’s divorce from the princess of a neighbouring state. His family wanted to know when he would remarry; as the only crowned prince, he needed to produce an heir.

Read more about the prince and the Lakshya Trust he later founded after this visit at The Walrus.

More Your Stories:

Do you have a story to tell about South Asian royalty? Does your family have connections to maharajas? Do you have photographs or objects related to kings and their courts? Share your stories and ideas here or by emailing us at

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

Your Stories: Hamilton Artist P. Mansaram Remembers the Royals of Rajasthan

August 23rd, 2010

In Rajasthan, where I grew up, I had the opportunity of interacting with the descendents of the maharajas. Their palaces are still an integral part of Indian heritage. Their aesthetics, and the grace of the architecture, truly reflect the glory of that period. Even today, the subtle influence of the maharajas and their involvement with their ‘people’ has created a bond one can perceive and feel.

I was born in a small but beautiful hill resort, Mount Abu, where many maharajas had their summer palaces. As a child I was attracted to their architectural beauty and would sketch their façades. Each year, before the maharajas arrived for the summer, the palaces are made over. In the interim, the palaces would be open to the public to have a tour. As a child, I was given the responsibility to take our house guests to tour palaces like the ones belonging to the states of Bikaner and Alwar.

Mount Abu had thick forests. During the summer months, forest fires were a common phenomenon and cheetahs would sometimes come to the border of the town and attack its residents. Then, one of the maharajas would hunt the animal down. Later the dead cheetah would be displayed in front of the palace for public view, something I witnessed as a child.

After high school, I went to Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay to pursue art as a career. There I met my future wife Tarunika; her younger sister later married the Prince of Chhota Udaipur in Gujarat. We became good friends and he used to talk about their seven-story wooden palace. He was also related to the Maharana of Udaipur.

I was fortunate to have been invited several times to Udaipur and its many palaces. The maharanas of Mewar (Udaipur) have always been trustees of the state and not rulers. Even now the current Maharana is playing that role extremely well.  In 1999, I was invited to the Maharana Mewar Charitable Foundation’s annual award ceremony.  It was an extraordinary three day event, full of great pomp and show with hospitality of the highest order. There were about a thousand people in attendance and the venues for the receptions were a different palace each day. The whole event was more like sequence from the fairy land. I have never experienced anything like it.

Another time, I conducted a three-day drawing workshop for the students of the palace school.  That privilege gave me an opportunity to visualise and see the glory and grandeur of the bygone era and which resulted in a series of paintings on Udaipur and were shown at a gallery in the city.

P. Mansaram is an artist living in Hamilton. You can see more of his work at the Colour and Form Society.

Do you have a Maharaja story? We’re on the prowl for your connections and we’ll be highlighting various anecdotes and memories that come our way. Share your story here. Or contact us at

Maharajas protest too

July 7th, 2010

I have to admit that the idea of working on another Maharaja post was the farthest thing on my mind after the G20 and its accompanying protests blew through downtown Toronto. Like many of us, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about what protest means to me.

Maharaja of Baroda

Maharaja of Baroda, V&A

This also got me thinking of the maharajas before India’s independence (don’t worry, I’m adding how their subjects perceived them to my growing list of follow-up posts!).  There were many instances of rulers butting against the limits of their power due to their subservient position to the British.

Sometimes rebellion was overt such as the famous Indian Mutiny of 1857 (aka The First Indian War of Independence aka The Great Rebellion aka The Sepoy Mutiny) which included only a few rajas (and one rani). They rallied with Indian soldiers of the British army who had started the uprising. There was even an ill-fated march to Delhi to join up with the reigning Mughal Emperor whose once illustrious family had built the Taj Mahal. The final result was that legislation was passed in Britain to end the East India Company who had first gained control and transfer power to the crown. The era of The Raj had begun.

Others were more discreet like the Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda who during the 1911 Delhi Durbar upset the colonial masters by not providing King George V the proper ‘obeisance’. He did not wear his full honours and after presenting himself to his King-Emperor, he chose to do the unconscionable, by turning his back to the British monarch.

And of course, they were many who did nothing at all.

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

Your Stories: Remembering a friendship, a Maharaja and his doctor

June 22nd, 2010

To kick off our call for your maharajas stories, we are delighted to share with you this story from Barbara Stephen. Just last week Barbara wrote to us with her very own memory, not of a particular Maharaja, but how a family friend brought a little bit of royalty into her family’s life through a silver cup and saucer. Dr. George Martos was once the personal physician to Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar II of Indore and he gave her mother this gift after a trip to India to hunt tigers with the Maharaja.

silver demi-tasse and saucer

Here’s her story:

During the 1950s and early 1960s, my mother worked with Dr. George Martos, a Hungarian doctor who had gone from teaching at the University of Berlin to Indore where he was Medical Officer of Health during WWII, and was closely connected with the Maharaja. He built a hospital for him there, and retained his connection with Indore after immigrating to Canada after the war, requalifying, and opening an obstetrical practice in Toronto.

From time to time the Maharaja would extend an invitation to join him in India for the tiger hunt, and in due course a ticket would arrive from the maharaja desk at a London travel agency. My mother heard lots of details about life in Indore, and as Dr. Martos was also my doctor and a family friend until his untimely death, I too learned about raising lion cubs, managing elephants, hunting tigers, etc.

I suspect the current Maharani may remember Dr. Martos from her childhood. I believe it was my mother, Charlotte Burry, who wrote to inform the family of his death in the 1960s, not too long after the death of the Maharaja. Dr. Martos always spoke of the Maharaja with great affection and respect.

My mother was given a silver demi-tasse cup and saucer from Indore after one of his last trips, very plain and moderne in style, with an angular handle. It was locally made and he indicated to her that it was quite special.

— Barbara Stephen is a Curator Emerita and Early Chinese Specialist with the Royal Ontario Museum.

I will post more about the Maharaja of Indore (now part of the state of Madhya Pradesh) later. Not only was he a fascinating individual – he was photographed by Man Ray, commissioned a sculpture by Brancusi, built hospitals and loved cars – we expect to have his life-sized portrait in the exhibit!

Do you have a Maharaja story? We’re on the prowl for your connections and we’ll be highlighting various anecdotes and memories that come our way. Share your story here.

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

What makes a Maharaja a Risky Business

June 7th, 2010

I was so excited to sit in on the weekly meeting of all the folks involved with making this exhibit a success.  There were a lot of cool updates such as the search for a royal Rolls Royce (now say that five times fast!) for the show and upcoming AGO appearances at local summer festivals.

Weekly meeting of “Team Maharaja”

What I didn’t realize was that my role as the blogger was also on the agenda! After the initial chitchat about why it would be great for team members to write for the blog and possible topics that they could cover – did someone say Rolls Royce? – a more serious question came up.

How would staff deal with any potential fallout from the community blog? In other words, what about issues management?

Ah, the elephant in the room (yes, I know…I can’t help myself).  History, let alone Indian history, is messy and potentially controversial. It’s a subject that makes even the good folks at Wikipedia wince.

In fact, a variation of the same question arose the next day at the community advisory board’s meeting. What might be some of the objections coming from within the South Asian communities to Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts?

I wasn’t surprised; I, too, was slightly apprehensive when I first heard about the exhibit, especially regarding its title. So here’s a few potential complaints:

An exhibit about royalty, what a cliché! Yup, but don’t we love our royals and celebrities? And yet, like the Europeans courts, the Maharajas were patrons of fine art. If you want to learn about the history of fine art and its changing role, you have to look at the courts and what happened to them.

The Nizam of Hyderabad; Image Credit: TIME magazine

Maharajas are Hindu, right? Although Maharajas are usually Hindu or Sikh, Maharaja is used because it is easily recognizable. In reality, the richest Indian royal was actually the Nizam of Hyderabad whose background was Muslim. Maharaja is merely a short hand for Indian royalty.

Is this only about India? No. The majority of the show’s objects date before the independence of Pakistan and India in 1947 when the area was generally known as India.

What about contemporary art? Local artists? Well, in 2007, the AGO’s Hungry God show displayed the work of contemporary Indian artists including Atul Dodiya, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta. For this exhibit, the team are hoping it will be possible to involve contemporary artists in some way, either through artworks or performances and events. It helps that two veterans of Toronto’s art scene are part of this process – Haema Sivanesan of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) is Project Assistant for Maharaja and Camilla Singh, recently of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), is part of the advisory committee.

It’s interesting how some of these issues seem to be about language, but really, it’s about information and the lack thereof.  That’s why it helps to have this blog, eh?

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.