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August 13, 2018

A Unique Exhibition In Britain Explores An Episode From India’s Past

Text by Huzan Tata. All images courtesy: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018.

Splendours Of The Subcontinent, showcases over four centuries of glorious offerings ­— including paintings, manuscripts and rare jewels

It’s no secret that our country is recognised around the world for its cultural marvels, and art that dates back centuries. At a unique exhibition in the capital of England, viewers will now get a chance to see some of these works of wonder from the Royal Palace’s private collection, many on display for the first time — all on a single platform. Divided into two shows, Splendours Of The Subcontinent celebrates the best of Indian cultural history. While Four Centuries of Paintings and Manuscripts showcases miniature artworks from the medieval eras as well as calligraphic verses and pages from Queen Victoria’s diaries, A Prince’s Tour of India 1875-’76 exhibits magnificent gifts received by the Prince of Wales from various Indian monarchs as he travelled through the country during his mother Queen Victoria’s reign.

“The fact that the exhibition only includes works of art from the Royal Collection was both a challenge and a blessing. It means that we can tell a story about the relationship between the British monarchy and South Asia that we are uniquely placed to tell,” say the curators, Emily Hannam and Kajal Meghani. Here’s a chance to discover our land’s history through visuals that are sure to leave you in awe.

Curator Speak

Bringing hundreds of works from several centuries together on one platform is no mean feat. Curators of the two shows that make up the exhibition, Emily Hannam, Assistant Curator, Islamic and South Asian Collections and Kajal Meghani, Exhibition Assistant Curator, Decorative Arts, talk to Verve about the grand showcase.

On Curating The Exhibits

Emily Hannam: “I think the art of a period has the powerful ability to convey a sense of history in a way that texts or buildings cannot. A great example is the Padshahnama manuscript, 10 paintings from which are on display in Four Centuries…. They capture the power dynamics of the Mughal court under Shah Jahan and give a sense of the extraordinary material culture and social practices of the time — the textiles, the wall paintings, the fireworks, the food, the music — all things that no longer survive. I wanted to showcase as broad a range of works as possible, right up to the 20th century. And it was important to group and interpret them in such a way that visitors can really understand what it is they are looking at, why they were created, when they entered the collection and what stories they tell.”

Kajal Meghani: “The works of art presented to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales are very important as they reveal more about his 1875-’76 tour, which was an important episode in terms of relations between the British monarchy and India. The artworks all have multilayered histories, which on one level tell a story of diplomatic gift-giving and colonial politics but also enable us to better understand South Asian court culture and craftsmanship. Objects that allowed us to explore these multifaceted narratives were chosen for the exhibition.”

Unmissable Highlights

EH: “Queen Mary acquired a series of 16 Pahari paintings depicting the story of Prahlad from the Bhagavata Purana, all of which are on display for the very first time. Despite being 250 years old, these paintings look surprisingly modern. The Padshahnama is obviously a highlight, and the incomparable levels of delicacy and refinement achieved by the artists are quite extraordinary. The original silk binding in which the manuscript was sent to George III at the end of the 18th century is also on display, and it is an unexpected surprise for visitors. We have also included Queen Victoria’s Hindustani journals and her phrase book. It gives translations for everyday expressions including ‘Tell the princess tea is ready’ and ‘The egg is not boiled enough’. I think the fact that Queen Victoria could speak, read and write Urdu will be another exciting discovery to many.”

KM: “From A Prince’s Tour, the peacock barge inkstand is not to be missed. It is the first object visitors see in the exhibition and it encapsulates all three themes — the four-month journey undertaken by the Prince of Wales, diplomatic gift giving, and the fact that it is an object that exemplifies the exquisite Indian craftsmanship. Made of gold, enamelled in blues, greens, reds, oranges and pinks, and inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds, it is an extraordinary object.”

Why You Can’t Miss The Exhibition
EH: “It is dazzling in every sense of the word. The jewels, the gold, the enamel — everything sparkles or shines. Nearly all of the paintings and manuscript pages have illuminated details in gold paint, gold leaf or other metallic pigments which are often highly burnished or pricked to produce wonderful glittering effects.”

KM: “A Prince’s Tour is a unique opportunity to understand an episode of Indian and British history that has not been explored in over 130 years.”

Splendours Of The Subcontinent is on display at The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, London, until October 14, 2018.

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