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India's Maharajahs: The best of both worlds

India’s rulers demonstrated what power they had by adopting the crafts of their conquerors – first the Mughals, then the British. Corinne Julius looks at the background to a new exhibition of dazzling artefacts

There are two prominent images of the maharajas in the popular imagination: the first, an ornately dressed, exotic, turbanned figure, clothed in rich silks and garlanded with ropes of precious gems; the second, an elegant, languid, almost foppish creature in superbly cut evening dress, sporting the finest cigarette case, glass in hand. The one may seem the antithesis of the other, but to a large degree the two conflicting images were the creation of the British, to whom the maharajas were obliged to conform. Attaining both images necessitated considerable patronage by the maharajas, first of local artisans and subsequently of European luxury houses. Maharajas: the Splendours of India’s Royal Courts, a new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, examines the fruits of this patronage.

Following the ideals of the Arthashastra – a fourth century bc treatise on statecraft, economic policy and military strategy – Indian royals had been required to support practising craftspeople and those who taught the arts. They commissioned all forms of art: music, literary works, paintings, architecture, as well as functional and symbolic decorative items, including armaments, furnishings and clothes. Some of the latter were for use by the royal household, but others, particularly textiles and garments, were kept in store as gifts. The acquisition, display and disposition of precious objects was a way of expressing wealth and hence military power and status. Skilled craftspeople were so highly prized that they were even imported by some maharajas to improve local production.

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