AS YOU STEP INTO ONE GALLERY at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, you can’t help but notice the elephant in the room.
Adorned in the finest silks, silver bells, and golden necklaces and topped with a throne-like seat fit for royalty, the elephant mannequin is just one element of an extravagant wedding procession featured as part of Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India.
The exhibit encourages visitors to imagine the lives of the princes and princesses of Jodhpur, a city of about a million that lies on the cusp of the Thar Desert in northwest India. According to Mahrukh Tarapor, the museum’s senior adviser for international initiatives, Peacock recounts four centuries of one royal family’s history that serves as “a microcosm of what all of India is.”
“It was the royal houses of India that preserved our traditions, the traditions that today, as Indians, we are so proud of,” says Tarapor, who co-curated the exhibit. “We talk very easily about that, but you realize these traditions were kept alive over 300 to 400 years of colonial rule where, for obvious reasons, the British were not particularly interested in introducing us to our own culture.”
That preservation role was jeopardized in 1971 when a constitutional amendment abolished funding for India’s plentiful royal families, leaving many unable to maintain their lavish palaces and collections. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for His Highness GajSingh II, the current Jodhpur maharaja, who pragmatically transitioned part of his family’s famed Mehrangarh fort—an imposing complex perched on a cliff 410 feet above the city proper—into a museum and converted a section of the royal palace into a luxury hotel. Many of the pieces you will see are family heirlooms that have been passed down from maharaja to maharaja.
Roughly 250 objects gathered primarily from the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the royal family’s private collection are organized chronologically across six galleries that span two floors. The exhibition starts in the 16th century and concludes in the 20th century with India under the British Raj. Other galleries document Islamic influences, weapons, and the life of Indian royal women.
The miniature collection, which features paintings meant to be held, is one of the primary heirlooms on display. From far away, the most show-stopping miniature depicts the Hindu deity Shiva gliding across the sky in an elegant aircraft. As you approach the piece, you discover Shiva painted into three separate scenes. Below the aircraft are various temples and towns telling smaller stories within the larger scheme. Think of it as a film strip where, from left to right, the “conversation” starts to come to life.
Another gallery mimics the zenana, a part of the palace accessible only by women and the maharaja. Queens marrying into Jodhpur royalty would often bring their staff, who continued to live with them after moving to Jodhpur. Over time the zenana inadvertently became the hub of language, culture, and goods exchange, which is reflected in many of the 13 miniatures displayed in that gallery. (One favorite depicts Sharad Purnima, a harvest festival when people gather under the full moon to honor Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity.)
Walking through the zenana gallery, H. H. GajSingh II remarked that this was the first time he's seen the central item, a pavilion, in one piece. A different item previously in storage—and in many bits and pieces—was a whole World War II aircraft, the Stinson L5 Sentinel. The Jodhpur prince was surprised all those pieces lying around added up to make a complete plane.
Even though Peacock is a six-gallery exhibit, each gallery can stand alone, telling a separate story. That’s why many of the exhibition’s galleries will be able to split after its time in Houston. Only parts of the exhibit will move on to Seattle and then Toronto. In other words, the MFAH is the first and only place where people can get the full royal Jodhpur treatment, so enjoy it while it lasts.
Thru Aug 19. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main St. 713-639-7300. For admission info and details, visit mfah.org.