By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
An exhibition of Indian art, on a scale previously unseen in the United States, is now on display at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and in partnership with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust of Jodhpur, India, Peacock in the Desert is a rare opportunity for visitors to view a diverse array of objects that represent a generous spectrum of the art of India. While the art exhibited is attached to the kingdom of the Rathores in Jodhpur-Marwar in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, objects in the collection come from throughout the country and span a range of periods from the 16th to the mid-20th centuries.
According to Dr. Karni Singh Jasol, curator of the exhibition and author of the accompanying catalog, “It’s a rare opportunity to see objects of such exceptional beauty and of such exceptional scale in Seattle…It’s visually beautiful. There is sound. There is movement…I think you will feel close to India when you are traversing the spaces.”
The exhibition includes a special painting gallery, featuring works from the innovative painting workshops of the kingdom of the Rathores, as well as textiles, jewelry, decorative arts, and much more. Many of the items will be viewed as part of elaborate full-scale recreations of court scenes, such as one portion made to look like the women’s quarters or “zenana.”
“The gallery that is dedicated to the life of women is a very, very favorite moment,” enthuses Jasol. “There are a lot of things that are going on in that space.” Jasol describes objects in the zenana that present both the leisurely activity of court ladies, such as a tiled swing, and the devotional activity, such as a detailed shrine to Krishna.
The exhibition is divided into several parts, which correlate to the path visitors will follow as they view the collection. This marks the first time SAM has utilized the 3rd floor gallery for a special exhibition in conjunction with the usual 4th floor location. The double-height 3rd floor gallery will house the extravagant Royal Wedding Procession, which features a life-sized model elephant, caparisoned in elaborate textiles and metalwork, with a magnificent “howdah” (riding seat) upon its back. The Royal Wedding Procession is another of Jasol’s favorite parts of the exhibition, and in the space SAM has provided, the scale and beauty of the artwork is shown to great advantage.
“The royal wedding procession is spectacular, dynamic, and colorful,” Jasol says.
In addition to the paintings, zenana, and wedding procession, one of the only surviving intact Indian court tents, or “lal dera,” is on display, which according to Jasol has never traveled outside of India; and a dazzling palanquin, or carriage, that requires great care to assemble and disassemble, and which is another of the prized items in the collection. The exhibition in total consists of 250 pieces.
As visitors progress through the exhibition, their visual pleasure will be accompanied by music, and there will also be video footage familiarizing guests with the locations where the objects are usually held: the palace and fort in Jodhpur-Marwar, which are now part of the Museum and Heritage Trusts of India. Visitors will have a window into the history of the region and its connection to the Mughal and British Empires, as well as the current royal family’s continuing efforts to preserve their traditions and their connection with the people of the region.
“It’s a microcosm of India,” says Jasol. “India is all about syncretism and coming together of culture…We have 20-plus official languages and hundreds of dialects and thousands of gods, so that diversity you will see in the exhibition.”
Peacock in the Desert shares similarities with the Garden and Cosmos exhibition, also from the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and previously held at SAM. Yet this collection is even more diverse. Whereas Garden and Cosmos was devoted to a single type of art — paintings — and each work might have captured a single, insulated event or a subject with wide-reaching significance, Peacock in the Desert, as described by Jasol, multiplies the concept of micro- and macrocosm to an even greater degree. There are objects on display that one must get close to, such as jewelry or finely-wrought ironwork, and there are immersive environments through which one may wander. All are the art of the single kingdom of Jodhpur-Marwar, and all are the art of India.
His Highness Maharaja Gaj Singh II, who established the Mehrangarh Museum Trust in 1972, and his daughter, Baijilal Shivranjani Rajye, will be visiting Seattle to see the exhibition in October. The Maharaja has been active in supporting and cultivating the collection in India, so now the palace and fort are recognized by UNESCO and receive 1.2 million visitors per year. The Maharaja is, as Jasol puts it, a leader in the field of heritage management and tourism, and stays involved with his community in many ways.
“The success of royal families’ post-independence is if they have been socially relevant,” says Jasol. “If they have kept the continuity of connection with their people, and he’s been very successful in that.” In addition to being the ultimate caretaker of the Trust and its precious objects, the Maharaja is involved in water harvesting, important for a desert region, and in supporting research and education related to head injuries.
Peacock in the Desert runs until Jan. 21, 2019, when it will relocate to Toronto. SAM has planned a wealth of activities to accompany the exhibition during its stay in Seattle. There will be a film series featuring Indian films, Diwali activities, and other events for children and adults. Says Jasol, Peacock in the Desert “celebrates Indian art in all its form and all its beauty. It provides this great window into the rich artistic and crafts tradition of India.”
A full schedule can be found on the museum’s website at visitsam.org/peacock.
Jessica Kai can be reached at email@example.com.