'Maharaja' at the Asian Art Museum offers a glimpse inside India's royalty since the 1700s

As Hollywood was during the Great Depression, as Bollywood is for  vast masses of India’s poor, the Asian Art Museum’s new exhibit diverts attention from  economic problems so apparent in the museum’s Civic Center neighborhood.

“Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts” is a luxurious vacation to the far-away, long-gone world of the princely courts of the Subcontinent.

The exhibit, from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, covers an eventful period from the 1700s to the difficult birth of independent India in the 1940s, with the subsequent partition bringing forth Pakistan and later Bangladesh.

Kings and princes ruled India until Queen Victoria became the single monarch in 1876, but they retained much political and economic power under the British. Conspicuous wealth — including an immense silver horse-drawn carriage and stunning jewels such as Cartier’s largest commission, the Patiala necklace — is displayed through the exhibit.

Curated by the museum’s Qamar Adamjee, “Maharaja” spreads over three large galleries on the main floor. Each gallery deals with various aspects of the rulers’ lives; inscriptions on the walls provide details. An introductory video in the lobby and an Adamjee-narrated audio guide handily offer more information.

The first gallery describes how the maharaja, or great king, had many royal duties and strict rules governing protocol and behavior. Paintings, such as that of Maharana Amar Singh II of Mewar, show ideal royal dress and demeanor, and portray the king as a superior being.

Lavish clothes, jewelry, vehicles and furniture on view illustrate the royal court setting. Also on display are spittoons, mats, canopies and spice boxes made of the finest materials — gold, silver, silk and treasured yak hair.

The second gallery focuses on royal spectacle, a symbol of authority. A 19th-century painting of the procession of Ram Singh II of Kota shows the maharaja being carried on a richly adorned elephant.

Another painting, in which Krishnaraja Wodeyar III proceeds through Mysore, illustrates the enormous scale, variety of activities and festive nature of the rulers’ celebrations.

Other objects — a chauri holder, elephant goad, suit of armor, flintlock gun, horse tail ornament, saris and robes — depict military pomp and palace life.

The third and largest exhibit room traces a compressed history and the shifting power of maharajas, beginning with the decline of the Mughal Empire in the 1700s. It continues through the resurgence of old kingdoms and emergence of the Marathas and Sikhs to the dominance of the English East India Company and British colonial days.

Early 20th-century, Western-imitating or influenced fashions that follow are especially striking, including those of the jazz-age princes (educated in Europe or by English tutors in India), who adopted Western dress and culture and became devoted to cricket, fox hunting and automobile racing.

The exhibit ends with the birth of modern India, the tragedy of Partition and the end of the maharajas.

Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts

Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays except until 9 p.m. Thursdays (January-October); closes April 8
Tickets: $7 to $17
Contact: (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org
Note: Free admission today is courtesy of Kumar Malavalli, chairman of the India Community Center in Milpitas.

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