For those who have memories of India and for those who haven't had the chance to visit India, a walk through the Maharaja exhibit at the AGO offers more than a glimpse into the Indian subcontinent's history and its royalty. A visit to these galleries truly is a beautiful experience, delivering more than just the exotic, even as the viewer is dazzled by the light reflected off the jewels and metals.
The journey begins soothingly, with muted tones, soft music and simple walls encouraging us to leave the modern world and travel back to the 1700s. Moving through each gallery, the eras change as do the artifacts representing them. We begin with elephant accessories, then look with longing at embroidered lenghas and jewelry so heavy, it's a good thing a Maharani had a bevy servants to do everything for her as she reclined on her velvet pillows into the 1800s.
Then came the 1850s with the fights for independence that changed everything. Walk too quickly and we'll miss the elegant letter from 1853, handwritten in Urdu by the Rani of Jhansi, imploring the English East India Company to recognize her husband's adopted son as the next heir of Jhansi. (It didn't.) She went on to lead her troops on horseback into battle in the 1857 rebellion.
Moving on, we enter the era of the British Raj, and the trinkets and treasures begin to visibly change. Glancing at the doors of a silver carriage, it feels as though a princess should be peeking out to wave from the window. Then, as we circle the carriage, the gleam of chrome beckons from the next gallery...
"Have you seen the car yet?"
His Highness Yuvraj Saheb, the Mandhatasinhji of Rajkot asked me the question with a boyish grin during the Maharaja Gala. The one-of-a-kind saffron-coloured 1934 Rolls Royce Phantom II is a family heirloom, custom built for his grandfather His Majesty Thakore Sahib Dharmendrasinhji Lakhajiraj of Rajkot. It shares space with the Patiala necklace by Cartier, photographs by Man Ray, and exquisitely delicate cut-work saris that could fly away in the breeze.
History is often thought to be dull, art can be incomprehensible, and fashion is another matter entirely. That the AGO has brought together over 200 of these items spanning 250 years to share India's royal story, and managed to keep one captivated throughout the entire visit is an impressive feat. Of course, that our culture is rich in art, spirit and tradition must make the AGO's task a bit easier; lucky are we that we can now proudly share all that with our neighbours.
Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Court, at the Art Gallery of Ontario from Nov 20 to April 3
Admission: 25 and under free, family packages available
Origins: the Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Next stop: The Asian Art Museum, San Francisco