A Visit to the ROM Exhibit, Treasures of a Desert Kingdom

My Visit to Treasures of a Desert Kingdom

I was privileged to attend the press preview of the ROM exhibition “Treasures of a Desert Kingdom” with its luxuriant tents, golden treasures and exquisite paintings. It was a perfect timing after my January trip to India and brought a lot of depth and context to what we saw there.

The collection belongs to His Highness Maharaja GajSingh II of Marwar-Jodhpur and his daughter, Baijilal Shivranjani Rajye who were in attendance. Remarkably, the collection has never been broken up and is the result of many generations of careful curating.

1E161990-8565-45AC-8219-92BD0BC0A65F (1).jpg

Of note is a large tent with its detailed embroidered fabric and arches that recalls the architecture of the palaces: the long perspective of successive arches is a striking architectural element of Indian’s palaces. I was particularly struck by the soft glow of the gold spice box. Formed of 6 peacocks turning their heads away, almost as if too shy to look at each other, it resembles a lotus flower. It has a delicacy and intimacy rarely seen in such objects.

Women of the Court

I was particularly interested by a section of the exhibition dedicated to the women of the court. During our interview, exhibit curator Dr. Deepali Dewan explained that the western stereotypes depicting these women as being secluded in harem-like settings, deprived of agency and cut off from the life of the court came out of the colonial period literature. At the time there was a sense that Indian women needed to be saved and that was used to justify colonial presence.

Recent research revealed that in fact Indian women in the court played a profound political role and exerted great influence on political decisions. They overtly interfered in the king’s decisions, frustrating British agents who could not counter their influence, as they had no access to them.

download (1).jpeg

Women’s living quarter were protected by stone lattice work called the Jali. Western interpretation was that of a curtain that cut them off from public life. The historically correct interpretation is that of a screen that enabled the women to act like “big sisters”, keeping an eye on things to then be able to meddle and intervene in the king’s decisions.

Several large, extraordinarily detailed paintings show women in action: hunting lions, riding camels, playing polo. Hardly the stuff of secluded women. They used their independent sources of income to patron the arts and religious festivities which form part of the court rituals – thereby extending their influence of the affairs of the crown. 

IMG_0064 (1).jpeg

It is difficult to know if the life of the elite translated in the life of the commoners as there are few relevant texts or painting. Non-elite women worked as dancers, musicians, attendants and active players of society.

Most of the jewelry exhibited was worn by men. It had a symbolic significance of power, strategic alliances, strength. There was not a hint of jewelry being the domain of femininity which is how it has been perceived in western societies over the past few centuries. The concept of jewelry being a feminine attribute is in fact quite recent. Queen Victoria is the “inventor” of the diamond engagement ring (as well as the white wedding dress).

Dr. Dewan will give a talk at our ROM event on March 27th and will further develop the history of jewelry and gender. The event takes place on March 27th at 6.30pm and will include cocktails and a private tour of the exhibit.