Chicago’s Field Museum is the final venue and your last chance to see “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts. Over 200 rare artifacts, including elaborate jewelry and weaponry, royal costumes, and stunning artworks from the 1700s to the 1940s are displayed in this presentation of India’s privileged and deified rulers against a background of dramatic political change.
Maharaja, from the Sanskrit “mahant rajan,” refers to “great king.” Ruling through implication of divine sanction, the regents used the display of pomp and splendor to reinforce public belief in their royal divinity. The maharajas sponsored religious foundations and were expected to participate in their elaborate rituals. In keeping, or perhaps in contrast, the maharajas also had to be fierce military leaders. The many colorful and detailed paintings, court furnishings, elaborate weapons, expensive board games and musical instruments in the exhibition are testaments to the royal role of “patron of the arts.”
Gemstones, particularly rubies, diamonds and (often huge) sapphires were a predilection of the Maharajas, and by extension, their female counterparts, the rani. Heavily gem-encrusted personal jewelry and clothing, daggers, furniture/thrones, and formal elephant regalia for parades were designed for the adoration and intimidation of the throngs and are exhibited for our wonderment and puzzlement about India’s social and financial contrasts.
Legendary Indian princesses are shown to have been fierce warriors at times, as well as being highly cultured, educated and often fashionable. The 16th century queen, Chand Bibi of Bijapur is ensconced in legend and popular imagination for her courage in battle, and later, in the 20th century, Maharani Chimnabai, wife of the enlightened Maharaja Sayajirao III of Baroda, was a staunch fighter for education and rights of women. Man Ray photographed the legendary beauty of Sanyogita of Indore.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are the spectacular throne that once belonged to the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh; intricately detailed paintings in water color and gold delineating royal processions (one 24-feet long); ceremonial regalia, jeweled turban ornaments and traditional costumes worn by great kings and queens; ceremonial gem-studded daggers, swords and matchlock guns; and prized photographs by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, and other famed photographers. Particularly notable among the objects is a horse drawn carriage decorated entirely in silver that was made for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar in 1915 and the Patiala necklace that was designed by Cartier. It was the largest single commission in history and it originally contained 2,930 diamonds and the yellow 234.69 carat DeBeers diamond. Royal elephants too were adorned with great majesty for parades. On display is a silver “howdah” used for seating the maharaja on a giant elephant during the grand processions and an “ankus,” an instrument made of gold and studded with colorless sapphires used to control the elephant.
Art objects in this exhibition are drawn from the three centuries that witnessed shifting power of kingships, dynasties and empires. With the decline of India’s powerful Mughal Empire in the early 18th century there came a resurgence of older Rajput kingdoms in central and western India alongside the developing Maratha and Sikh powers. By the mid-1770s, the English East India Company (which had grown into a major mercantile, military and political force) surmounted the raging power struggle. The peoples of India tried to resist the oppressive Company through regional uprisings and in 1857, a full-scale rebellion broke out. Meanwhile, various Indian royal families played prominent roles in the support of each side. The British government ended the conflict in1858 bringing an end to both the Mughal dynasty and the East India Company. When British rule under Queen Victoria of England (then titled the Queen Empress of India), led to India’s becoming the largest, wealthiest and most productive colony of the empire, India became known as “the jewel in the crown.”
India was brewing a growing discontent with British rule as the 20th century dawned. The people finally won independence in 1947 under the visionary leadership of Mahatma Gandhi. Indian rulers (Maharajas) became increasingly marginalized as the drive for self-rule took hold so they united, forming the Chamber of Princes in 1921. Most princes signed the Instrument of Accession, integrating their territories into the new nation-states of India and Pakistan. Today, many maharajas remain a potent symbol of regional identity and continue to exercise their royal duty, acting as guardians of their ancient traditions.
The artistry and wealth implicit in this collection of opulent display is a wonder to behold, despite awareness of the great disparities in India’s teeming populations.
The Field Museum has organized special programs and performances for visitor enjoyment throughout the run of the exhibition.
A beautiful, comprehensive catalogue accompanies and amplifies the exhibit and is available at the Museum Store.
Organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and sponsored primarily by BMO Harris Bank and Exelon, “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts” can be experienced at The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL through February 3, 2013.Tickets can be purchased at

Adrienne Garnett is an artist, arts writer and educator reporting on the latest in the arts.