Four art exhibitions across the U.S. wow Americans, giving them a glimpse of the splendour that was royal India.

This has been a year to celebrate, the year of India in American museums. Four near-simultaneous, groundbreaking shows of spectacular Indian art opened in major U.S. art institutions — three in the fall and the fourth, centred on Delhi, just last month.

In September, New York's Metropolitan Museum inaugurated “Wonder of the Age: Master Painters of India, 1100-1900”, with 220 paintings by 40 diverse artists — Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains — who worked across India in Mughal, Rajput and Deccan courts. For the first time, these works were exhibited not by period or patron, but by identifying painters who had hitherto remained anonymous. Now, these artists won credit for works which were attributed to them through new scholarship, textual references, distinctive styles, even hidden signatures. Master miniaturists like Nainsukh, Payag and Mansur were acknowledged with their original honorific titles (“Wonder of the Age”, “Wonder of the Time”) and assigned separate exhibition rooms where their oeuvre was grouped chronologically, and labelled with names and biographies. Superb paintings from famed manuscripts like the Hamzanama commissioned by Akbar and Shahjahan's Padshahnama were shown with illustrations from the Gita Govinda and the Ragamala.  This complex, multilayered loan exhibit, imported from international collections, including four Indian museums, wowed American critics whose raves drew visitors. Many scrutinised the miniatures with the Met's magnifying glasses.

Come October, San Francisco's Asian Art museum opened “Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts”, in collaboration with London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Curated by the Asian's Qamar Adamjee, it explores (through April 8) the lives and times of India's great kings through the objects they used; the art they commissioned and collected. The nearly 200 artefacts include Sikh Maharaja Ranjit Singh's golden throne, the remarkably preserved silver carriage made for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar, an enormous red velvet and silver howdah, and the breathtakingly huge Patiala diamond necklace — Cartier's largest single commission. These are only some objects that illuminate the dazzling world of Indian royalty from 1700 through 1947. Awed museum-goers — jean-clad, backpacking commoners — walk through a recreated throne room into a palace's inner sanctum. Ceremonial court costumes and heavy coronation robes hang beside the most gorgeous jewellery: turban ornaments and bajubandhs of kundan or navratna, European-style diamond and emerald pieces created by famed Western designers. Shimmering elegant chiffon saris worn by fashionable maharanis are gracefully draped over slim mannequins. The exhibit ends with a roomful of ultramodern furniture, custom-made for princes who had acquired sophisticated tastes on their European travels and stunning black-and-white photographs of celebrity princes and beautiful princesses by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton. This nostalgic show conjures up a long-gone world, harking back to fabled luxury and wealth, through these declining kingdoms' witnessing of India's shifting political powers, its colonisation by Britain, and the post-Partition emergence of independent India and Pakistan.

Dazzling collection

November saw the Metropolitan's opening of its grand new Islamic Wing, curated by Indian-born Navina Haider. Transformed into an instant media star, she expounded on the work that went into the seven-year making of this magnificent rotating display of 1,200 objects from the Met's permanent collection of 12,000. Titled “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia”, this huge attraction devotes 4,000 square feet to “Later” South Asia “highlighting the artistic and cultural diversity of the Indian subcontinent and its wider connections with the Islamic world, Europe, and beyond.” Artworks that originated in the Sultanate, Mughal, and Deccan courts, dating from 1450 onwards, include masterpieces like the celebrated folios from the Emperor's Album, Mughal jades and jewels, Deccan court arts, vibrant Jain, Rajput, Pahari, and “Company” school paintings, and textiles.

Finally, there is “Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857”, an intimate  exhibit at Manhattan's Asia Society, commissioned five years ago by president Vishakha Desai. It is co-curated by historian William Dalrymple and art historian Yuthika Sharma. Musing on their collaboration, Dalrymple says, “We cover each other's black spots. Yuthika provided academic rigor.” Sharma adds, “Will's historical perspective complemented our dialogue.” Together, they defined the show's narrative, selected a “wish list” of works they wanted, then reframed the list based on availability. As first-time curators, they found invaluable help from Asia Society's trained professionals: “We'd never done this before,” admits Dalrymple. “We were less polished than, say, Pratapaditya Pal who churns out shows twice a year, he knows how to do it,” he chuckles. “We're doing this for the first time.”  Sharma moved to London, communicating with Delhi-based Dalrymple by phone, e-mail and occasional meetings.

They have assembled a show that includes exquisite late Mughal miniatures alongside innovative “company” paintings; works that span transformative national history as witnessed in the crucible of Delhi, in an era of earth-shaking transition. After Aurangzeb's death, the Mughals found themselves in a severe political and economic downturn but, artistically, their ateliers re-blossomed. Court culture held strong. Indeed, the earliest British “Residents” who came to rule Delhi — when the East India Company gave way to the Crown, which took administrative charge — were blown away by the glamour of a highly sophisticated civilisation. Residents like David Ochterlony, William Fraser and James Skinner adopted everything Mughal —customs, apparel, wives and way of life. The art of the period swung both ways as these “White Mughals” hired court painters to document their lives and followers. Not surprisingly, the painters used familiar techniques, then hybridised them with  Western-style portraiture of  commoners — rural models assigned to their commissions.  

Cross influences

So, if “Maharaja” reflects royal opulence and splendour, “Princes” focuses on an academic point: the cross-influences of two different schools of painting. “Princes” is about late Mughal culture, but also about the relationship between genres of painting, about mixed patronages as Mughal emperors and British Residents used the same artists, and about the inevitable dilution of stylistic categories. It recognises that Company painting is shaped not just by the officers who commissioned it, but is also an agency of the painters who decided the style and character of their work. Reflecting the range of work these artists produced, this show offers architectural panoramas — a scroll of old Delhi is nearly 10 feet long — and portraiture, both innovatively Western. The Fraser Album's portraits of rural folk are distinctive, not typecast. Similarly, Skinner's commission to paint his soldiers are documentation of ordinary folk, each one distinct, unlike generic courtiers. Many paintings show uniformed British Residents visiting local darbars in their official capacity. In contrast, there is the fabulous — and funny — masterpiece of Ochterlony at home, “going native” in Indian togs, with a hookah, a pandan and a spittoon, enjoying a musical soiree, surrounded by Indian women and retainers. It is a cross-cultural painting like an earlier one, “Muhammad Shah playing Holi” with his Hindu courtiers. There is much here of both historical interest and artistic value. 

For, as works in “Maharaja” speak to the manipulation of Indian kings by the British, “Princes” is about the coloniser upstaging the effete late Mughals. Both shows display royal Indians' gorgeous artworks, while telling the grim story of colonialism's power politics.  In fact, most of the objects in these exhibits are no longer in India; they ended up in British museums, even the Queen's collection. Both shows' stories end cataclysmically; Independence marked the maharajas' death knell, and the 1857 Mutiny signalled the end of the Mughals as the British exiled Bahadur Shah to Burma.