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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

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.