“Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India” wows right away. The exhibition begins on the third floor of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) with a royal wedding procession, complete with two life-sized horses and elephant mannequins draped with ornate tapestries and gold jewelry. The royal insignia is ever present.
According to the gallery text, the procession is based on a homecoming in Jodhpur when a king escorts his new bride to the palace. It’s easy to imagine the king sitting in the howdah (a fancy seat) on top of the elephant, surrounded by throngs of people eager to watch the event. The dazzling scene is framed by a red wall plus a red carpet
Nearby is a display of more than a dozen turban cloths. The accompanying text explains how men carefully choose their wrapped headdresses, which are akin to an unspoken language. An oil and gold canvas painting of former rulers as well as a video featuring a 21st-century wedding are also on display.
“Peacock” is a sprawling exhibition on two floors that focuses on five centuries of art from the Marwar-Jodhpur kingdom in India.
It’s split into six thematic sections:
• Tradition and Continuity: The Royal Wedding Procession
• The Rathores of Marwar
• Conquest and Alliance: The Rathores and the Mughals
• Zenana: Cross-Cultural Encounters
• Durbar: The Rathore Court
• The Raj
The show is a collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Mehrangarh Museum Trust of Jodhpur.
Karni Singh Jasol, director of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, described the exhibition as an opportunity for SAM visitors to broaden their perspectives. Jasol described India as a diverse country whose introduction to the west has been presented through a colonial lens filled with stereotypes of snake charmers and poverty. “Peacock” is the antithesis.
“There’s a whole new story to tell,” said Jasol. “I think it would give them new insights about an emerging country and I think it’s going to be great for students and the community that is living here, and Seattle and their children to come close to India and its arts.”
“Peacock” is not a show one can rush through. There are 250 works on display, including paintings, jewelry, weapons and canopies from the 16th to the mid-20th centuries. Magnifying glasses are stationed throughout the exhibition so that visitors can take a closer look at the details in works, such as “Women of the Zenana Watch a Dance Performance with Bakhat Singh,” an opaque watercolor and gold-on-paper painting. According to Jasol, “Peacock” is the largest exhibition of Indian art to ever come to the U.S. It’s also the first time this group of objects has traveled outside of India, revealing an important period in Indian history.
“The art production is the highest. It’s a period of great political challenges and you get a sense of Indian sensibilities and aesthetics,” said Jasol. “Though it comes from one royal family and one dynasty in an area, which is at the edge of the desert, but it’s also really a microcosm of India.”
The second thematic section of “Peacock” begins with a video introducing Marwar-Jodhpur, photos of the Mehrangarh Fort and the Rathores, the clan that ruled the region from the 13th to the mid-20th century. One of the larger sculptures on display is a gilt wood and glass mahadol (palanquin), a mode of transit powered by people. The ornate structure would have been used in processions for the royal family.
In the next section, one of the last surviving Mughal tents takes up most of the room. It’s call “The Lal Dera,” which means red imperial tent. Paintings and textiles in the area tell the story of the alliance between the Rathores and Mughals.
“Peacock” also explores the role of women. Specifically, the zenana, which is the women’s wing of a Rathore palace. New archival research shows the women were not leading passive lives. Jasol said queens were financially independent and were assigned a portion of the territory. Paintings show women playing polo and other outdoor sports.
Other notable objects include a throne, guns that were designed to mount on a camel and a beautiful white marble sculpture of a peacock.
The final section of the exhibition includes works where encounters with the British are evident. “Portrait of Maharaja Sardar Singh” is an oil on canvas painting made by Bert Harris in 1896. Singh wears a fitted ceremonial coat of brocaded silk, a multi-layered bejeweled necklace and a turban adorned with emeralds, pearls and rubies.
“This is a remarkable period for Indian artistry. This is a period of great production of high-quality artwork,” said Jasol of the entire exhibition. “There was a specialized workshop for tents. There was a specialized workshop for jewelry. There was a specialized workshop for paintings.”
“Peacock” took about three weeks to install after several trucks transported the objects from Houston. SAM is the second and last stop in the states. After Seattle, it will go to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
If there’s one word that describes “Peacock,” it’s opulent. From narrative paintings to a swing crafted with soapstone, copper and iron, the high-quality artwork helps visitors understand this particular period of Indian history.
The peacock is notable among other fowl in part because of its vivid plume of feathers. The bird represents grace, beauty and magnificence. It’s a fitting metaphor for the exhibition.
WHAT: “Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India”
WHEN: Runs until Jan. 21, 2019
WHERE: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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