Arriving at the Field Museum for the preview of the Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts, I had the chance to speak briefly with Pranita Jain, Kalapriya Center for Performing Arts Artistic Director and the two performers, Saraswathi Ranganathan who played an instrument called veena and dancer Priya Narayan. It was their performance that set the tone for the exhibition's opening. They can be seen again at public events on Dec 15 and Dec 29. (www.kalapriya.org)
Richard Lariviere, President and C. E. O., The Field Museum welcomed the audience and pointed out that this exhibition is the first since he took this position. He has a strong interest and background in the history and culture of India and knows Sanskrit. He offered a special welcome to His Highness, Maharana Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udaipur.
Field Museum Trustee Ruth Ann Gillis, Executive Vice President, Chief Administrative and Diversity Officer for Exelon spoke to the audience about the role of Exelon as a socially responsible corporate citizen.
Anna Jackson, Keeper of the Asia collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum and curator of the Maharaja exhibition spoke next and described her role. She explained that about half of the items in the exhibition are on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum. This exhibition is the first time that London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Chicago’s Field Museum have collaborated on an exhibition. Hopefully, this is the beginning of successful collaborations.
When we stepped into the exhibition and “oohed” and “aahed “ along with the sixth grade class visiting from Romeoville. This school group enhanced our experience dressed in tunics provided by the Field Museum, well behaved, and energetic, they were clearly as fascinated as we were by the variety of displays.
Anna Jackson also became a very helpful "docent" as we explored the exhibition, pointing out some very special items and answering questions. Included in this exhibition are art objects and many paintings, which are not typically found in exhibitions at the Field Museum.
The word maharaja¸ means “great king” and often conjures up images of a turbaned and bejeweled ruler with absolute authority and immense wealth. But in this exhibition it was clear that maharajas had a complex role in the cultural and political history of India, and were more or less expected to be “all things to all people”
The exhibition re-examines the world of the maharajas and their extraordinarily rich culture. The concept of royal duty in India was evidenced by wide ranging displays and paintings that showed everything from military strength to administrative and diplomatic skills. Maharajas were expected to adhere to a strict code of behaviors, almost making them “all thing to all people”. They needed to be wise and benevolent but was also expected to be an excellent warrior and accomplished hunter. It is interesting to note the significance of the “pomp” because it was the enactment of elaborate public spectacles that signified the Maharajas public authority and roles. Amazingly, even the elelphants were finely dressed and jeweled. The blending of video, painting, artifacts and clothing was a very impactful approach.
I was so dazzled by all I saw that it was hard to take everything in. There was ceremonial regalia—for example, a silver howdah, which the maharaja used atop a giant elephant during grand processions, historic footage of “dressing” the royal elephant, and an ankus (an instrument to control the elephant) made of gold and bejeweled with colorless sapphires, rare paintings in watercolors and gold, chronicle royal rule and daily life: from the nearly 24-foot-long painting of a procession of the ruler of Mysore to an intimate scene of a concert in a palace courtyard. There was also stunning clothing and jewelry that illustrated how maharajas used opulence as a symbol of authority. One turban ornament from the mid-18th Century is made of gold, rubies, emeralds, diamonds, a pearl, and an enormous sapphire. Although originally worn only by the ruler by the 1700s these kinds of ornaments were given as symbols of royal favor to select noblemen.
This amazing exhibition traces 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. Ending with India’s independence movement and the collapse of British rule in 1947, Maharaja provides a better and nuanced understanding of the rich cultural traditions and complex political dimensions underlying India today. Chicagoans and visitors to our city are very fortunate in being able to experience this exhibition and as well as the many special accompanying events.
Tickets to Maharaja are included in both Discovery and All-Access passes to the Museum and are priced at $22-$29 for adults, $18-24 for seniors and students with ID, and $15-$20 for children 4-11. Discounts are available for Chicago residents. Tickets can be purchased at fieldmuseum.org. Special rates are available for tour operators and groups of 15 or more. Call our Group Sales office at 888.FIELD.85 for details. The Field Museum is open 9am to 5pm every day of the year except Christmas Day.
A “Royal” Celebration: Field Museum’s 3rd Annual 50th Anniversary PartyCelebrate 50 years of marriage at The Field Museum on Saturday, December 1. Couples celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary in 2012* will receive FREE basic admission with the purchase of a Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts ticket. Inside the exhibition, couples will discover the grandeur of the maharaja’s wedding, and be able to view a beautiful bridal gown from early 20th century India. At 1pm couples can renew their wedding vows and partake in a champagne toast. Reservations are recommended by calling 312.665.7100.
*Couples must provide proof of a 1962 wedding (marriage certificate, wedding invitation, or dated newspaper clipping).
1400 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605
Photos: Courtesy of the Field Museum (FM), B. Keer (BK) and Patricia Simms (PS)