Wednesday, October 26, 2011

India's Maharaja at San Francisco's Asian Museum

Jewel-encrusted belt
The throne room
Royal carriage
The Asian Art Museum has emerged from some troubled times with a snazzy new logo and energized strategy for attracting visitors to the world-renowned collection of art treasures at San Francisco Civic Center. The newest exhibit is the spectacular "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," which runs through April 8.
I got a glimpse of it during a recent press preview and am making plans to go back: the galleries are filled with beautiful objects and descriptions of the fascinating history of Indian kingdoms and their rulers from the 1700s to the mid-20 century when British rule ended and it's worth spending more than just an hour.
The exhibit was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where it ran from late 2009 to early 2010 and attracted 160,000 visitors, one of the museum's most popular Asian exhibits ever, according to one of the curators.
The 200 objects include elaborate jewelry, costumes and weaponry of the royal families and the royal courts in diverse Indian kingdoms. The first gallery is devoted to descriptions of the maharaja rulers and their ideal qualities and strict set of behaviors: not only were they diplomats and administrators but they were expected to be patrons of the arts. They were apparently real bon vivants: wine flasks and hookahs are inlaid with jade, rubies, emeralds, turquoise and gold. Their thrones were surrounded by exquisite textiles.
The history of the kingdoms and their evolution over the tumultuous 300-year period covered in the exhibition is well described. The British East India Company, which was drawn to India for its riches in spices and textiles, took over and the maharajas fell under British control by the 1840s. But the maharajas managed to maintain some authority and retain their riches and culture as princes as the British empire for several more generations.
The Asian Art Museum has a full calendar of performances, films, evening events and lectures scheduled to accompany the exhibit. Among them is a Nov. 13 screening of the documentary "Merchant Ivory's India" with a talk by Mills College professor Nalini Gwynne after the 2:30 p.m. screening (free with museum admission). Daily docent-led tours are scheduled from 10:15 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day.