Sunday, 17 January 2010


16/01/10, V&A

The V&A's latest blockbuster, devoted to the princely courts of India from he late 18th century onwards and their gradual demise under the Raj and later independent India.

Jaw-dropping jewellery: emeralds, sapphires, rubies, pearls... the stuff of cliche, here made real. Fine 18th and 19thC pictures of pageantry, durbars, processions etc, very detailed, full of people in the most gorgeous costumes, though a later black and white photo of a similar scene showed they weren't quite as glorious in reality as they appeared on paper: a bunch of thuggish-looking fellows with big moustaches sitting in two lines fanning out from the throne of a young (14?) prince.

Memorable things included two huge portraits at the end of one prince in western clothes (spats, evening dress with cloak, cigarette holder) and in Indian, plus Man Ray photos of he and his wife in Monte Carlo. This was a man clearly at ease in both worlds, though he chose to build a relatively modest palace-house in India in the 1930s in modernist style with spectacular western art deco furnishings.

There was a fine Rolls Royce c 1929 or so; the exhibition label observed that many maharajahs ordered fleets of the things, one reason why Rolls Royce flourished so between the wars.

The show was stronger on the visuals than the politics. I got lost among the Marathas and Rajputs and what Tipu Sultan did.

There were some silent films of durbars under the Raj which showed the Brits matching pomp with pomp and pageantry with pageantry, presumably so as to be taken seriously by the princes. There was also film of a maharajah parading through his capital in a howdah on the back of an elephant: it looked distinctly dangerous.

There were some (though not many) pictures of intimate scenes: a bare-chested prince at puja (prayer); two erotic pictures including one in what looked like pencil of a maharajah pleasuring three women at once which was impossible to make out; women shooting heron from a palace terrace; scenes of hunting.

There were spectacular swords, highly decorated howdahs and all sorts, and one picture which vividly demonstrated the impact of the west: instead of a somewhat idealised portrait of the prince in profile, his head surrounded by a halo, the maharajah looked straight out at the viewer, his face drawn in enormous detail, for all the world like a figure posed in a photographer's studio.

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