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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

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

Maharaja’s Installation: Silver Carriage (Postscript)

November 6th, 2010

Postscript: Curator Stephen Inglis and Interpretative Planner Shiralee Hudson Hill ask me to take a few more pictures of the landau.

Stephen, points out this bulldog, hidden by the undercarriage.

“It’s mind-blowing,” he says.

It turns out the carriage maker,  The Fort Coach Company, was owned by Pestonjee B. Press. He had studied at the J. J. School of Art in Bombay and began building coaches in 1878. He eventually built coaches for the British Governors of Bombay.

The work on this 1915 carriage for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar pays homage to India’s silverwork heritage as well as the Art Nouveau movement in Europe (the enamel work is evidence of that).

Shiralee was particularly intrigued by the greyhounds that adorn the carriage rather than the expected tigers and elephants.

What caught my eye was this beautiful scene of a lake with lotus flowers and hills in the distance. You can see the blue enameled flowers beneath it.

For Stephen, the allure of this piece is obvious. “It’s such a hybrid of design ideas; it’s truly within the global melange of the period.”

A week after I took my first pictures, the V&A folks are still polishing!

The silver carriage is full of surprises. On one door there looks like a sacred flame, aligned directly above the Maharaja’s coat of arms. Beneath it reads this line:

Manushya Yatna Ishwara Kripa
(Man’s Endeavour, God’s Grace)

There is much more to discover about this particular piece. You’ll see what I mean when the exhibition opens in just two weeks.

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 Installation: The Silver Carriage

November 3rd, 2010

If there was something disappointing about walking through the Maharaja exhibition during installation last week, it was how few items were ready. Fortunately, I came across Donna Stevens, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Senior Metals Conservator, at work at a somewhat tarnished but spectacular silver carriage.

There she was, hand- (or I should say, Q-tip) polishing the landau to clean off the silver tarnish that obscured some of its finer details.  It was built by the Fort Coach Factory of Bombay for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar (Gujarat) in 1915, probably inspired by a similar one seen at the 1911 Delhi Durbar. As she worked, I had a chance to chat with her.

“The people who restored it were coach-builders; they were not metal work conservators. There’s quite a lot of heavy silver tarnish between the decorative elements. I am just taking that tarnish out so you can see the shape. At the moment, from a distance it just looks like a black blob. If you take this out, it’s amazing, you can really show off the coloured enamels and the birds and the flowers.”

photo credit: SINAI AND SONS

Donna is part of team from the V&A here until November 13. Their job is multi-faceted – they act as couriers for the objects, see to their unpacking, conduct “condition-checks”, and finally sign off the objects to the AGO.  When the exhibition ends in April, some version of the team will return to do it all in reverse.

I can’t help but ask how long will it take to finish this silver tarnish clean-up. She laughs, “I’m here to do other objects, but I’ll do this between everything else, about an hour a day. I’m not working constantly [on this] or I would go mad.”

Those other objects? “We have some very nice armoured pieces and fantastic chauris (fly-whisks), ankus (elephant goads or hooks), and swords – really lovely swords, which I will be installing next week.”

Her favourite piece? “I love them all. Ask me after I’ve unpacked them all.”

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

And so it begins: the installation of the Maharaja exhibition

October 30th, 2010

It has been enjoyable following the planning of the AGO’s Maharaja exhibition, but what I have been dying to see is the actual installation process. Finally, I get my invitation.

“Do you have steel-toed boots?” reads the email.

I arrive and I am guided through a labyrinthine set of hallways (I start to panic a little, thinking to myself that it might be a good idea to leave a trail of crumbs behind so I can find my way out). We pass one more set of doors, get my name checked by security and voila, we’re finally here, at a half-finished construction site.

Looking around, I feel like I’m a kid again when my family visited the suburban subdivision where our house was being built. There’s that similar feeling of excitement and wonder. That this work-in-progress will one day be real.

There are the incomplete walls, the cases for objets being built, a half-painted wall and a corner full of plaster dust that leads to a whirlwind of sneezes. One room is full of crates of all sizes, packed together so tightly, you can’t walk between them. A few crates include mannequins who are already partially dressed in vintage saris (it leads to less wear and tear, says the textile conservator).

In another room, paintings and photographs are already hung, but they are covered in craft paper to protect them from the light for just a few more weeks. Fortunately, there is something to see, a silver landau (or carriage) that shines not-so brightly, waiting for its daily polishing.

People are everywhere: the AGO’s own installation technicians, Maharaja team members, and even folks from the Victoria & Albert who have accompanied the work to make sure the installation process goes smoothly (some are here for a few days, others for a few weeks).

Often the work is prosaic – someone has to drill holes in the walls to hang the paintings or lift part of a picture frame ever so carefully out of a crate. But the levels are out, as are the measuring tapes, to make sure the lines are straight.

Welcome to a fairy tale world where perfection is a necessary part of the job description.

Piali Roy is a Toronto 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

A woman flying a kite

September 8th, 2010

A few weeks ago, the city of Toronto chose to ban competitive kite-flying at a city park. South Asian in origin, the aim of the game is to cut the string of your opponent’s kite so that it flies away into the ether. The strings are coated in glass, making the debris rather dangerous. Kite fighting is already banned in Lahore, Pakistan.  In honour of that decision, I present the appropriate painting from the upcoming Maharaja exhibition, A woman flying a kite.

Unknown, A woman flying a kite, 1700-1800

Unknown, A woman flying a kite, 1700-1800, opaque watercolour on paper, 573 x 421 mm, © V&A Images / Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Now this miniature painting (opaque watercolour on paper) is far from being a danger to the public. It is from the 18th century and is from the kingdom of either Bikaner or Jodhpur (in present-day Rajasthan, India).  This style is known as a nazar painting, meaning it was a present to the maharaja on a special occasion. Rosemary Crill, a senior curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, writes in the Maharaja catalogue that many nazars were like this – “depicting a woman alone pursuing some activity, which in the romantic poetry of the time had symbolic connotations of yearning for an absent lover.”  The Hindu god Krishna was also the subject of many nazars.

Key to the look of a nazar painting, which is usually the size of a postcard, is the background. According to art historian Naval Krishna, they are set against a plain landscape, and just like A woman flying a kite, they have “tufts of grasses at the bottom, while a curtain-like band of clouds hangs against a plain gray or blue sky.”

Naval Krishna has a neat description of how these particular paintings would be presented to the Maharaja:

When the artist’s turn was announced, he would present his painting on top of a neatly folded, plain or embellished hand- kerchief-sized cloth carried on his right palm. With a ceremonial bow he would offer his work to the Maharaja, on whose right stood the chief minister and court scribe. The Maharaja would lift the painting from the artist’s palm and, in a gesture of appreciation, would offer the artist a token payment.

What I find particularly enchanting about this painting is the subject’s stylized face. While reading up on this style of painting, I learned that the women depicted often looked similarly depending on the kingdom where the painting was made. Each kingdom had their own concept of  the ‘ideal woman’.

But what intrigued me more was recent research by Molly Emma Aitken which shows the queens of these courts also as patrons and collectors of paintings.  It turns out that the ladies were not the silent by-standers we often assume them to be.

** You can access the actual articles by Naval Krishna and Molly Emma Aitken if you have a Toronto Public Library Card and use their online research database.

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

Translating a travelling exhibition: a curatorial perspective

August 11th, 2010

These days, exhibitions hopscotch around the world. Everyone loves a good blockbuster, but how easy or difficult is it to pull off?

Who better to give some insight into the process than Dr. Stephen Inglis, the adjunct curator of the AGO’s version of the exhibition? We touched on this issue during an in-depth conversation about his work on the Maharaja exhibit.

In case you didn’t know, Stephen is the curator emeritus from the Canadian Museum of Civilization (where he once held the position of Director-General, Research and Collections) and is the new executive director of the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, which is to open in northwestern Quebec in 2011. He is also an art historian with specialties in both Indian and Canadian folk art traditions.

So how did he get involved with the AGO? It turns out that two years ago he was in London sussing out the option of creating an exhibition on maharajas, when he heard about the Victoria & Albert Museum’s plans for their own show. When the V&A became interested in sending the exhibit to the AGO, he got the call asking if he would be interested in working on the project, by helping “transition” it to Canada. The rest is…well, you know…history.

One of the issues of bringing the V & A show here is that you have to translate it to a Canadian audience, tell me about some of the issues involved in doing that.

There is a section of the exhibit called The Raj and British rule in India of what is often referred to as The Raj. But I think that many people – this is never explained in the exhibition – many people would not know that the word Raj used to describe the British Rule comes from the same word as maharaja [maha means great, raja means king]. It’s the word for king that has been transitioned into the British sense of authority during their colonial rule in India. Those kinds of things are maybe taken for granted in London, but for the Canadian audience, it’s an interesting little detail that they need to absorb and think about and have explained.

It seems like a simple thing but in a sense, it tells a whole story in itself – how the British, in many ways, adopted some of the traditions and the positions formerly held by kings of India because they were the new kings of India. Many of the processions – of audiences meeting kings- were even kind of modified (sometimes expanded and sometimes contracted) to suit the needs of a new form of imperialism which was the British rule.

What are some of the trickier aspects of working on this project since you are also in Ottawa, this is happening in Toronto and there are other partner museums involved?

[Laughter] I think it is very tricky. One of the things about this experience is that it exemplifies the challenges that are faced by all large travelling exhibitions today, which usually combine a whole set of different professionals, often from different countries and from different traditions. It relies a lot on good cooperation and goodwill, but it also relies on a set of skills that people in museums develop for really working together, cooperating, relying on each other, and learning to fulfill certain functions.

The idea that a single person works on the curatorial vision, on the interpretation, on the layout – especially something of this scale and complexity – doesn’t work anymore. In a sense, it is both a challenge and also a very great pleasure to find yourself in a position where you are relying on your colleagues and on people that you have recently met, to deliver a product that is coherent, that takes into account the public, and that delivers messages that are both explicit and implicit in what is happening [in the exhibition].

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