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home : lifestyle : wink (weekend in ink)   May 24, 2016

1/25/2013 12:31:00 PM
Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts

A close-up of a shield that was a gift from Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar. Photos by Genna Ord.NewsTribune photo/Genna Ord
+ click to enlarge
A close-up of a shield that was a gift from Maharana Bhim Singh of Mewar. Photos by Genna Ord.
NewsTribune photo/Genna Ord
If you go
Maharaja is open through March 1.
For more details, visit

Kevin Caufield
NewsTribune Reporter

CHICAGO — Field Museum in Chicago has an exhibit into a world few Westerners are abundantly aware of, but is nonetheless significant in world history.
Maharaja explores the world of India’s kings from the 1700s to the 1940s. It was a time when royal identities, court culture and patronage were transformed. It was a tumultuous period which saw the rise and fall of regional kingdoms, British colonization; and independence of modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“It’s a fascinating story and a part of the world people don’t fully understand,” said Field Museum project manager Tom Skwerski. “It’s a really interesting period of history.”
The exhibit opens with a large watercolor portrait of Amar Singh II, who ruled Mewar from 1700 to 1750. Next to it stands a model elephant that dominates the room. The elephant is adorned with ceremonial garb and howdah, a brightly polished, throne-like saddle embellished with royal symbols.
“Maharaja” tra-ces the decline of the Mughal Empire in the early 18th century, to the rise of smaller kingdoms, through the rise of the English East India Company and British colonization in 1858. It ends with India’s independence movement and the collapse of British rule in 1947.
The exhibit accomplishes this by using artifacts made available by several British museums for the last time. Some of the oil paintings have reached their exposure limit before they begin to fade and will be crated. The exhibit itself will go back to England, with much of it being boxed and stored for an undetermined period of time, Skwerski said.
“It’s not as family-friendly as other exhibits because it’s culturally themed,” he said. “This will be the last time anyone can view many of these objects.”
Most of the artifacts are examples of the Maharaja’s wealth and extravagance. Their jewel-encrusted ceremonial necklaces, bracelets and rings hold material, spiritual and astrological significance. All of them incorporate diamonds, rubies and sapphires, which were found in abundance on the Indian subcontinent.
More important, the jewelry confirmed a ruler’s status just the same as ceremonial weapons such as swords with golden handles and gems reflected the ruler’s role as protector of his people and upholder of righteousness.
Several of the priceless oil paintings in the exhibit depict kings hunting, which was not just royal sport. Hunting provided the king with practical experience at war. It also demonstrated his chief duty as protector of the kingdom.
Palace life and the private lives of Indian kings were intensely public and political as depicted in several paintings. The exhibit also offers examples of game boxes children and adults would play that seem to resemble modern day Parcheesi. There also are examples of musical instruments such as the tambara, a type of guitar that is plucked.
“It’s interesting to see the technology of the day,” said museum guest John Sadowski of Downers Grove. “I like history. We knew about the British occupation there but all of this is brand new to people.”
By 1840, all of India’s kingdoms fell under British control, either as a result of military defeat or in the spirit of self-preservation in the face of the East India Company’s growing power and prestige.
The British occupation didn’t necessarily mean India’s rulers no longer had a place of cultural significance. Many still contributed and performed the traditional rituals and rites of kingship.
Under British rule, the Maharajas retained their kingdoms but their status changed from independent rulers to princes of the British Empire. They continued to maintain order within their states, tax their subjects, allocate revenue and patronize cultural activities, yet ultimately were subject to colonial rule.
Many Maharajas were educated in Europe or by English tutors in India. Some adopted elements of Western dress and culture such as fox hunting, cricket and automobile racing. Travel to the West greatly expanded Indian princely patronage, and the new royal patrons had a profound effect on the production of luxury goods in Europe, as manufacturers responded to the tastes of their new clients.
The exhibit ends with the 20th century ushering in widespread discontent as British rule became more and more apparent. Indian rulers became more and more marginalized, and visionaries such as Mahatma Gandhi gained in following and popularity.
Consequently, the Maharajas formed the Chamber of Princes in 1921 to represent a unified front, gaining independence in 1947 and thus the spurring the creation of the nation states of India and Pakistan.
But independence brought consequences. India’s Maharajas became faced with escalating costs and declining incomes. Many princes were forced to sell their assets. Yet, others survived by adapting to changed circumstances. Some began political careers. Some turned their palaces into hotels, opened their collections to museums or initiated conservation programs.
Dottie Hetzel of Oak Park visits Field Museum often. She said the exhibit made her more interested in learning about Indian royalty.
“Everything here is a wow,” she said. “I’ve seen shields and swords before but never so interestingly made and fabulous to look at.”

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