Maharaja exhibition at the V&A

The Indian Maharajas were the richest and most flamboyant kings and princes the world has ever seen. Now they are dazzling London in a show at the V&A
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The procession of Raja Ram Singh II of Kota, c1850
© V&A images. Courtesy of Maharna Mewar Charitable Foundation
The procession of Raja Ram Singh II of Kota, c1850
Gold, emeralds, rubies and pearls - and that is just the elephant’s jewellery.

Welcome to the vanished world of Indian Maharajas, the richest, most flamboyant and colourful kings and princes the world has ever seen, now the subject of a new V&A show that will dazzle London through the grey skies of autumn.

'Maharajas were half-king, half-god and they had to shine accordingly'

From the lifesize opening portrait painted on almond-green silk of Amar Sing II of Mewar, with his pink organza skirts, to the closing Patiala diamond necklace, the biggest commission Cartier ever undertook (for which one needs sunglasses), by way of velvet-caparisoned elephants and ivory palanquins to transport the bird-of-paradise ladies of the Zenana, or harem, this exhibition will never disappoint.

You will come out drenched in the rich spiced colours of India: crimson and flame, saffron yellow, spring green, purples and pinks offset by radiant white and gold; all tumbled together in wonderful combinations.

The vastness of India meant that, for centuries, it was ruled by warring groups, many of which were magnificently rich through their country’s vast mineral wealth and their ability to trade this for gold. Of these, the Mughals were the most important. A ruler was called a Maharaja - which literally means “great king”.

From the 17th century, the king had to be visibly great in order to command respect - adorned with ropes of pearls, smothered with jewelled headpieces and emerald-encrusted belts in richly coloured silks.

These attributes showed how important he was, sitting (while everyone else stood) on his low bolster-like throne of velvet and pure-gold thread under a canopy at a durbah - which was similar to the “levée” of French and English kings - where they held court and made political decisions surrounded by swarms of people.

However, as the exhibition shows, it was not just personal adornment that mattered to a Maharaja. From his processional elephant’s rich crimson-and-gold cloths, a silver howdah, or carriage, perched high on top, protected by the regal umbrella, to his weapons, everything glittered and sang of wealth and influence.

The Maharaja of Indore
© David Dunning/DACS. Courtesy of Mahaani Usha Devi of Indore
The Maharaja of Indore in Maratha dress c1929

Arts and social order

This was not just a question of show-off wealth. Good royal behaviour was to be a patron of the performing arts (dance, music and poetry) and crafts, and a ruler who was invested with not only the whole notion of the body politic, the social order itself, but also with quasi-divine properties. He was half-king, half-god and he must shine accordingly.

A Maharaja had to be fit and warlike. Many exquisite watercolours show not only the vivid courts and processions but also demonstrate martial prowess: here is a 1710 prince shooting heron, with five sari-clad lovelies holding his guns and dead birds; there is another prince playing polo - very unusually - against mallet-wielding mounted princesses.

No part of the palace was unadorned. Also on show are stupendously vulgar tall crystal tables made by the Birmingham firm F&C Ostler in 1880, and a delicious deep green cut-glass drinking service, also by Ostler.

Rich cotton fabrics
India still supplies Londoners with rich cotton fabrics in classic checks and stripes, like this shipment heading for retailer Malabar (from £24 a metre at
Given India’s huge wealth, the West was soon interested in getting a slice. The East India Company, established in the 18th century, did a roaring trade in the south, and quickly began to wield political influence, which the shrewdly diplomatic Indians recognised with gifts.

“Emperor-maker” Robert Clive was given a spectacular early 17th-century jade flask decorated with rows of emeralds and scattered liberally with rubies. Such rich presents were commonplace. An astonishing sword presented to Edward VII in 1902 has a scabbard burning with 719 diamonds.

Maharajas and Victoria

Though some kings, such as the famous Tipu Sultan of Mysore, rebelled against increasing British dominance, in 1858, British governance of India began and in 1877 Queen Victoria was declared Governor of India.

Indians have always adapted. As the West became more powerful, Maharajas had their daughters taught English or sent to Europe; adopted versions of Western dress; and by the Twenties, princesses started to buy jewellery, shoes and clothes from great couturiers such as Paquin and Schiaparelli, carry vanity cases by Van Cleef and Arpels, bob their hair and wear dark red lipstick. One princess ordered 100 pairs of shoes from Ferragamo.

Soane Indian Topkapi lantern
£9,900: a large Soane Indian Topkapi lantern (89cm high;
In the last gallery sits an enormous 1927 Phantom I Rolls Royce, the size of a small bus. The rear doors of the V&A had to be taken off to get it in.

Though many women lived hidden from sight, this was not always the case. From quite early on a rare few ruled as flamboyantly as the men. In 1819, at just 19, Qudsia Begum of Bhopal took over when her husband died. She abandoned the veil, learned to ride, and led her forces into battle.

In 1863, Sikandar Begum of Bhopal visited Agra with a retinue of 2,460 men. Yet, until the Twenties these women were the exception, as a delicate ivory fretwork “palanquin” shows. Resembling a tiny caravan with a central opening, men carried a princess in this, while ivory screens shielded her from the riffraff’s gaze.

Turban brooch
This turban brooch, inspired by the collection, is available from the V&A shop at £20
Four watercolours of interiors for the last great palace to be built in India, in 1929-1944, called Umaid Bhawan, show that its owner, Maharaja Umaid, ordered entirely Art Deco interiors with slick marble and leather and chandeliers at a costly simplicity that must have shocked.

Out went the fabulous hanging textiles for which Indian palaces had been justly famous, in came jazz, lacquer and cocktail cabinets. The Maharaja knew that the project would create hundreds of jobs. Other enlightened, forward-thinking rulers built roads, schools and universities.

What this exhibition demonstrates, apart from dazzling wealth that one can only dream about today, is that many of these princes not only lived in style but also moved with the times and ploughed a great deal of money back into their territories, with free education and better infrastructure.

Yet they always did it dressed in the most wonderful clothes in uplifting colours. Perhaps, as we inch towards another recessionary winter, there is a lesson in that.

MAHARAJA: the Splendour of India's Royal Courts is now open at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Exhibition Road, SW7. For full details visit

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