Perched atop the hills of Jodhpur in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, the Mehrangarh Fortress for centuries served as a site of religious pilgrimage, the seat of the Rathore clan of rulers, and a major center for royal art patronage. Now the home to the Mehrangarh Fort Museum, the historical residence of the Maharajas of Rajasthan contains within it one of the most respected and important collections of Indian art in the world. With its extensive holdings of paintings, decorative arts, textiles, and jewelry, the museum has preserved some of the finest known objects representing Indian courtly life and tradition from the 17th to early 20th centuries.
The position of the fort, some 400 feet above the ground, was chosen for strategic and defensive reasons, making it quite difficult — for friends and foes alike — to reach. Luckily for residents of Houston, as part of an exciting new partnership, over 250 treasures from the royal collection of His Highness Maharaja GajSingh II were carefully packed in dozens of custom containers, shipped thousands of miles across two continents, and painstakingly installed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), for the groundbreaking new exhibition Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India, which opened to the public on March 4, 2018.
Most of the artwork in this special exhibition comes from the permanent collection of the Mehrangarh Fort Museum as well as the personal collection of the royal family of Jodhpur. Many of the objects featured have never left their palace settings, making their international — and Texan — debut all the more exciting. Indeed, visitors to the MFAH will be treated to representations of extraordinary royal traditions, including a grihapravesh, or homecoming wedding procession, which opens the show. It comes complete with a howdah, a lavishly decorated and upholstered seat used by the groom to ride an elephant. Though it has two seats, the second was not for the bride; rather, it was meant for an attendant who would use a fly whisk made of yak-tails to shoo insects away from the regal groom. The Mehrangarh Fort Museum is well-known for its gallery of royal vehicles, many of which can be seen in Peacock in the Desert.
For the installation at the MFAH, the howdah has been placed atop a life-size elephant mannequin, specially made in India, allowing visitors to see how it would have been arrayed as part of a wedding procession. Even the model elephant, which was shipped in multiple pieces before being assembled at the museum, has been decorated for the occasion, its face adorned with traditional festive makeup. According to the installation crew from India, saddling a live elephant is actually easier than this highly realistic resin version, since real elephants are trained to kneel for their riders.
In addition, the special exhibition shows off many different modes of royal transportation, all of them objects of splendor, such as an early 18th-century mahadol, or grand palanquin, a gilt wood, iron, and glass structure that once required twelve men to carry on special occasions. This extraordinary object has been in the Maharaja’s collection since the early 1700s, when it was carried as war booty from the Western Indian state of Gujarat. More recent — and even heavier — princely vehicles also made the journey to Houston, including a 1927 Rolls-Royce Phantom II, which was custom made for the Maharaja Umaid Singh, the twenty-seventh ruler of Marwar Jodhpur, reflecting the desire of the Jodhpur Maharajas to modernize, a tradition that continues today.
The most “modern” object in the show was also one of the most difficult to transport to America — a considerable irony given it was actually made here: a Stinson L5 Sentinel airplane, manufactured in Michigan in the 1940s. Over 24 feet long and with a wingspan nearly to match, this aircraft, which once belonged to the Jodhpur Flying Club, showcases clearly the importance of the region to early aviation in India and Asia. In fact, the Jodhpur Aerodrome, built by Maharaja Umaid Singh in 1924, served as one of the main gateways for European pilots flying on their way across Asia.
This incredible object, equal parts engineering marvel and historical artifact, was never truly meant for display in a gallery, let alone one on the MFAH’s second floor. With its wings temporarily removed, the body of the Sentinel once again “took flight” above Binz Street — with the help of a crane. Staff from both Texas and India worked together to hoist the aircraft into the air and through the opened windows of the MFAH’s Caroline Wiess Law Building before carefully lowering it into place. Once wheeled into position, the body was reattached to the wings. The Sentinel, which now sits in the MFAH’s Upper Brown galleries, serves as evidence of both the modernizing vision of the Maharajas of Jodhpur but also of the impressive scale of this exhibition.
In addition to these massive pieces meant for public display, Peacock in the Desert also includes numerous objects of royal regalia, which offer intimate views into bygone eras of royal life and splendor. The princely pursuits of combat and hunting, for example, are represented by a wide range of daggers, rifles, and swords. Though fabricated for use, many of the weapons were embellished with precious materials, including gemstones, inlaid gold, and carved ivory. They were thus also objects of refinement and delectation — rifles meant to be admired as much as fired — as their appearance in many courtly paintings makes clear. In an 18th-century portrait, Maharaja Abhai Singh Riding with His Nobles, for example, all the men carry swords or daggers; they all also wear fine jewelry, including long strands of pearls and gemstones, and sport luxuriously embroidered fabrics. Such splendor is typical of these courtly paintings, as is the treatment of the landscape, its rolling hills dotted with plants and animals that seem, at first glance, out of scale with the rest of the work. This imaginative blending of size and perspective is a hallmark of paintings from Rajasthan, using the enlarged scale of the Maharaja both to emphasize his importance within his kingdom and also to highlight his features; indeed, the faces are so fine that individual hairs can be distinguished. This painting is therefore an impressive illustration of regal life as well as an intimate portrait of an individual ruler — quite like the exhibition itself.
With its hundreds of diverse objects, Peacock in the Desert tells many stories of the life and influences of the rulers of Marwar Jodhpur. The portrait that emerges, as impressive as it is intimate, is that of an important region with connections across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Preserved for centuries as symbols of kingship and valor, the treasures of the Mehrangarh Fort are now gloriously showcased in Houston, where visitors can see and experience objects and art once meant only for the Maharaja and his courtly retinue.
Note: All the pieces reproduced in this article are the property of The Fort Mehrangarh Museum Trust and are currently on display in the MFAH exhibit Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India.