Last week I walked into the first exhibition to comprehensively explore the extraordinarily rich culture of the maharajas. “Maharaja – the Splendor of India‘s Royal Courts” is the feature exhibit at the Victoria & Alberta Museum in London and will be available through mid-January 2010. It was Susan Stronge, senior curator at V&A and friend of the Sikhs, who literally showed me the way to the V&A after a candid conversation over cafe latte about Sikhs, art, Orientalism, Barak Hussein Obama and Patwant Singh (late transnational Sikh ambassador). Her interest in my take on the Indian Maharaja‘s depiction became the unusual catalyst to see the exhibition through two lenses: that of a Sikh and a South Asian.
Given that the number five in the Hindu numerology spans around business, marriage and romance, the five zones of exhibitions made sense. How the British have harbored such romantic notions of arbitrary boundaries of marriage and power in what it termed India! My journey through the exhibition started with the “Royal Spectacle” followed by the “Kingship in India.” It solidified with the “Shifting Power” that legitimized “The Raj” which divided its subjects into “Princely India.” The only thing missing were the people, today‘s South Asians.
A couple of hours went by quickly. It was an emotional roller-coaster which brought an occasional smile (especially when I witnessed atypical woman albeit omission of Sikh women such as Commander-in Chief Sada Kaur, Rani Jindan, General Khem Kaur and Commander Sahib Kaur). I hurried through myriad displays of royalty, elegance, splendor, sex, and domination. It was an incredible historical window into the opulence of ‘mirs’ (political leaders) of Awadh, Bengal, Deccan, Kashmir, Panjab, Marwar, Mewar, Sindh, and Travancore regions. There was also an occasional christening of the exhibition walls with illustrations of the habits of the ‘pirs’ (religious leaders). The common denominator held that the native South Asian subjects gave their primary allegiance to the Queen of England and that became the Raj.
I spent a disproportionate amount of time at a few spots. Other than the usual suspects which fit into the British category of typical royalty, I noticed a few peculiar things. My birth and pre-teen years were spent in the Bundelkhand region, so I appreciated two works on Jhansi and Orchha (just in case you couldn‘t tell I was biased). It was interesting to see footage at a video instillation of Bhupinder Singh inspecting troops in Palestine as well. An attempt to describe the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh rulers with intricate complexities of sacred and secular powers warrants praise. And, I would like to include a small note of appreciation here— in attempting to explain the significance of the meeting of two sovereigns of unannexed kingdoms (Panjab & Maratha), the exhibitors succeed in accurately identifying Ranjit Singh despite the fact that the original work itself does not.
I cannot say that I saw how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi fit into the ―splendor of the Raj but he is given space in the exhibit as well, presented as the one who brought forth freedom for Indians. Certainly a shallow and incomplete truth! Yes, he was a skilled politician and the torchbearer of elite Hindus who aspired to rule India one day. And what about the contributions of revolutionaries who didn‘t support the non-violence of the weak practiced by Gandhi. A cursory glance at his interactions with B.R. Ambebkar, Baba Kharakh Singh, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit establish his communal bias. Gandhi‘s autobiography endorses the nuclear bomb, praises Hitler, and belittles prophets. I suppose it suits the British conventional wisdom to continue to depict him as the savior of India, and I must take into account the city where this exhibit is available.
Aesthetically, the layout of the show space was superb, as expected, and so too the presentation was of the highest quality. It was prudent of the organizers to take a critical look at the basis for the exhibit; in attempting to present who really “integrated” India there is great potential for education, but at base it is certain that all integrations to date are artificial, the current structure still being the one granted by firangi (literally foreigner, here implying the British).
I appreciated especially the nuance in the acknowledgment that even darshan and nazar (public intermix of religious and political assertions) protocols of maharajas drastically changed as the maharajas became British subjects– not to mention their native clothing, cutlery, and ornaments. The notion that minorities develop multiple complexes—inferior in front of their masters and superior among other subjects— and frequently invite self-inflected punishments or engage in culturally diluting behaviors in order to be to be acceptable in the eyes of their ―masters spans time and space of human history.
As I left the museum, I drew on the words of Abraham Eraly. Do they still echo with many today? “[T]here came into existence, for short periods, a couple of pan-Indian empires, like those of the Mauryas and the Mughals, but these were established by conquest, and not by any national integrative process. Even the political unity that India enjoys today is the result of conquest, the British one…”
I‘m neither an artist nor an art critic. My eyes are that of a Sikh in the making. My worldview is laden with a raison d‘être to fight domination of all kinds. When will the people of South Asia develop the political consciousness to stand up to the elites who run India with a power they so conveniently received from the stroke of a pen. Was it “freedom at midnight,” “transfer of power”‖ or “recolonization”?
Given the crowds I observed on my visit pouring in to see the people and paraphernalia of the royal courts, V&A will likely deem the project very successful. And it is. Yet, I wait for a day when the
―shah-e-shahan shah (Emperor among Emperors) Guru Gobind Singh‘s grandeur is depicted in Sikh aesthetics to show how he is
―bar do alam shah (Emperor of Double-sovereignty). And for the day when Banda Singh Bahadur, blessed with Guru-genius, is made the subject of an exhibit celebrating his triumph to re-distribute the land to the tillers of the soil by capturing political power from the Mughal Empire.
Their royal kingdoms were truly of the Sikh ideals: establishing egalitarian society, capturing political power for the plebian mission, and combating religious and political domination. And always, they were presenting these ideals in an inspiring manner that celebrated the human existence as a divine gift. It is their timeless faith and wonder in expanding the individual‘s potential which may yet propel the Sikh revolution. Until then, I enjoy what is available for vismad (awesomeness) judging not always whether it seems “on track” or “off-track” but only that it moves human understanding forward.
Harinder Singh is the co-founder and Chief Programming Officer of the Sikh Research Institute. He assisted in developing and reviewing the Sojhi curriculum published by SikhRI. He is an interdisciplinary researcher and a global orator. His passion is to learn and share the Sikh culture.