Saturday, June 9, 2012

Art in the Afternoon.

It was about time to give the Indians a second chance.

Having been bested by VMFA's new show "Maharaja: The Splendors of India's Great Kings," here, it was time to finish seeing the rest of the magnificent exhibit.

Because I'd already seen the first three galleries, today's foray centered on more recent times.

Not so recent (1790) that Indian emperors didn't still have enormous households.

In "Process of the Mughal Emperor," the imperial household crossed the plane of the canvas left to right no less than five times.

That's a lot of people and elephants.

One thing that fascinated me in the images I saw today was how frequently the paintings portrayed a false reality.

Rulers and families were shown with higher status, more authority, greater power than what they had at the time they were painted.

Wishful thinking or delusions of grandeur?

I was appalled at a metal "tiger claw," a sort of brass knuckles with ferocious looking hooks attached.

It was a handy device when you wanted to disembowel your enemy.

The ostentation of these royals was clear with the palanquin pole handles of gilded silver shaped to look like tiger heads.

It wasn't enough to use a human-carried conveyance to move royals around, the handles had to be elaborately decorated, too?

Oh, that's right, money was no object.

Everyone takes in art differently and obviously there are no right and wrong reactions, but, one visitor's made me laugh.

As I walked into a gallery to see the enormous (I'm going to guess 10' by 18') "The Delhi Durbar of 1903," a monumental oil on canvas showing the week-long Indian celebration marking Edward VII's ascent to the British throne (and thus ruler of India), I overheard a woman's take on it.

"This is a nice picture," she said after three seconds of scrutiny. She then moved on.

It was such an epic work that you could look at it for an hour and still be discovering things. And yet...

As the British influence in India grew stronger, the effect on Indian art became clear.

Indians looked less, well, Indian and more like Europeans with brown skin and black mustaches.

Conversely, as their taste for Western objects and lifestyles grew, it showed in their objects, like an elaborate pair of cut glass and steel occasional tables.

Cut glass tables?

Probably my favorite items were the Reverso wristwatches, notable for their ability to flip the watch face180 degrees (thus revealing a beautiful image) to protect the mechanics of the watch from being damaged during polo play.

The ultimate rich man's accessory.

When we got to the 20th century in India, there was film showing marriages and celebrations and, best of all, inspections of the camel corps.

Of course there was a camel corps.

Once we got to the Jazz Age Maharaja, Yeshwant Rao II Holkar, things got opulently modernistic.

His Art Deco desk was almost as long as my car. And then there was his red library chair.

Fit for a king, it boasted a neck roll, a silver ashtray set into the arm of the chair and two built-in reading lights on either side of the chair's back.

Nearby, a series of three photographs of Holkar and his wife were absolutely stunning.

It's impossible for me not to be taken with photographs of a man so obviously in love.

Showing him and his beloved wife, they oozed with his affection for her.

In one, a sideways glance was longing (and telling), but the most striking was with her head backwards on his shoulder as he was shown in profile looking at her.

Had there been a thought bubble coming out of his mouth, it would have said, "How did I get so lucky?"

One of the descriptions of an Indian ruler said that he should be a "patron of the arts and possessor of the rare and wonderful."

From what I could see in the pictures of Holkar, no material possession (and he had the best of everything) compared to this woman whom he so clearly found rare and wonderful.

Forget tiger claws and palanquin handles.

It looked like she qualified as a splendor of one of India's great kings.

That's romance.

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