Few days back I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to have a look at their exhibition on Indian Maharajas. I spent more than four hours at the museum reading and looking at the paintings and objects used by or associated with the Maharajas. The extravagance and the splendour of the native rulers can be seen in abundant measure.
Visitors looked with amazement and marvelled as they went past the superb collections put on display. What made the exhibition interesting was that it went past the usual Mughal-Maratha kings and rulers. The exploits of the more recent princes (i.e early 1900 and before independence) and their opulence got many interested.
It was the first time that I heard of Nawab Aliverdi Khan of Murshidabad. The exhibition had a beautiful wine flask that 'once belonged to Robert Clive' and had come from the treasury of Murshidabad. The beautiful flask is said to have originated between 1600-1625 and has been loaned from the Musuem of Islamic Art, Doha. British officers were constantly gifted by the native kings and princes by expensive artefacts and objects. It was a smart way of being in their good books and keeping their kingdoms safe.
There were some beautiful paintings by Nanha and Ustad Murad. The paintings had the tiniest of details and give us an idea of how and what were worn by the kings. Our imagination about kings and princes is mostly made up from the mega serials shown on TV. It felt nice to see the paintings and forced me to think about what would have happened after the painting was done. I wish I could know about the conversation that would precede a sitting, or how elaborate the settings were for a painter.
Paintings were often commissioned after the death of a head of state perhaps to keep the memories alive. There was a striking and unusual painting of Chand Bibi of Bijapur shooting with her trusted lady companions. It was a posthumous image but said a lot about the courage of the feisty lady. Similarly, Durjan Sal of Kota is shown hunting a lion, in a posthumous image. Another interesting painting is that of Man Singh playing polo with his lady companions. The painting has no other male in the frame and hence the faces of the women are not covered.
The kings and nobles were no doubt obsessed with their women companions. For apart from their durbars, it seems they often got themselves painted with their ladies. Bhup Singh of Guler is shown with his 'Rani' under a quilt enjoying the serene surrounding. Just next to his painting is a one which has an intimate, erotic scene involving a man and a woman. Interestingly, the caption says that paintings using generic figures were commissioned at court to titillate and arouse. While still on the topic of eroticism, it would have taken some guts for Ram Singh II of Kota to have got himself painted 'pleasuring three women'.
One of the items that really caught my imagination was a pair of women's dumbbells. Said to be from Jodhpur (1850-1900), it is supposed to be a 'rare surviving example of exercise equipment from a royal court'. I can't really describe it, but one look at it would suffice to make anybody realise that they can only belong to a woman. Beauty with Brains.
Also on display was a tent originally belonging to Maratha warrior Raghuji Bhonsle which was taken by Nawab Aliverdi Khan of Murshidabad in 1744. A painting of Bhim Singh, the Maharana of Mewar, somewhere around 1826, shows his full durbar with East India company officials led by Sir Charles Metcalfe. In a possible show of strength or rather to reflect the upper hand of Indian kings, the Maharana is shown sitting on his spacious gaddi with the rest of his courtiers along with the East India officers squatting in much smaller area. The caption says '...Everyone else sits on the ground, including with some discomfort the British officers in their stiff uniforms.
The tiger claw used by Shivaji to struck Afzal Khan also finds a place in the exhibition. The historic claw was given to James Grant Duff, the East India company representative at Satara. Shivaji was a great Maratha warrior and the tiger claw must have been a priceless gift for the Englishman. Priceless enough to be still preserved and kept on display thousands of miles away in the Victoria and Albert Musuem in London. Also kept on display are a pair of artistically made flintlock pistols belonging to Tipu Sultan. I am sure they must have been effective enough when loaded. The pistols reflected Tipu's interest in the use of latest warfare. The pistols had his favourite tiger emblem with 'walnut, silver and steel, gold' used in their manufacture.
The recently discovered letter of the Rani of Jhansi written to the Britishers asking them to recognise the infant Damodar Rao as the heir to the throne is also on display. The letter is a long one in Persian, with some British officer scribbling 'Anand Rao son of Basder received the name of Damudar Rao Gangadhar' in the letter itself possibly to summarise the essence of the communication. The long letter was a precursor to the long struggle put up by the Rani of Jhansi. The letter was only found out in the British Library as recently as November 2009!