Museum  March 1, 2018

Centuries of Royal Treasures from Jodhpur, India, come to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Courtesy Mehrangarh Museum Trust. Photograph: Neil Greentree

Palanquin (Mahadol), Gujarat, c. 1700–30, gilded wood, glass, copper & ferrous alloy

Groundbreaking exhibition brings centuries of royal treasures from Jodhpur, India, to the U.S. for the first time

Unprecedented loans from Jodhpur on view in “Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Masterpieces and relics, never before seen beyond palace walls, illustrate the history and artistic legacy of the Rathore Dynasty

HOUSTON—A major collaboration brings a groundbreaking exhibition of royal treasures from India to Houston in March. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in partnership with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust of Jodhpur, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India showcases nearly four centuries of artistic creation from the kingdom of Marwar-Jodhpur, one of the largest princely states in India, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. The exhibition will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, from March 4 through August 19, 2018, before touring to the Seattle Art Museum and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada.  

Through lavishly made ceremonial objects, finely crafted arms and armor, sumptuous jewels, intricately carved furnishings and more, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India outlines the dynamic history of the Marwar-Jodhpur region and the Rathore dynasty that ruled it for over seven centuries. Established in the 15th century, the city of Jodhpur was once the powerful capital of Marwar, a vast desert kingdom ruled by the Rathores, who were descendants of a hereditary social caste of Hindu warriors and kings (known as “kshatriyas”). Over the course of several centuries, the prosperity of Jodhpur attracted the attention of two successive empires who ruled India: the Mughals and the British. Both encounters reshaped Jodhpur’s cultural landscape, introducing objects, artists, languages, architectural styles and systems of administration that influenced the royal identity of the Rathore dynasty. Through some 250 objects from Indian courtly life, most never before seen outside of Jodphur, the exhibition illuminates how the Rathores acquired and commissioned objects amidst these cross-cultural exchanges to leverage patronage, diplomacy, matrimonial alliances, trade, and conquest.

Drawn primarily from the collections of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust and the private collections of the royal family of Jodhpur, the exhibition marks the first time that most of these treasures—including paintings, decorative arts and furniture, tents, canopies, carpets, textiles, and weapons—will be seen outside of their palace setting at Mehrangarh Fort and the first time they will travel abroad. The foundations of the Fort, carved out of a rocky hillside 400 feet above Jodhpur, were laid by the Rathores in 1459 as a military stronghold. The Fort, famously described by Rudyard Kipling as “a palace that might have been built by Titans and colored by the morning sun,” has been the seat of the Rathore dynasty since then, serving as a royal residence, a center of cultural patronage, and a place of worship for the royal clan. Today, it houses the collection of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, which was established in 1972 by the current dynastic head of the Rathore clan, His Highness Maharaja GajSingh II of Marwar-Jodhpur, and remains one of the most important and best-preserved collections of fine and applied arts from the Mughal period of Indian history. A handful of carefully chosen objects from other notable collections, including The al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait, complete the presentation, while large-scale photomurals will evoke the stunning setting of the Mehrangarh Museum, where H. H. Maharaja Gaj Singh II continues to preserve the living heritage of Jodhpur.

Peacock in the Desert is the result of a landmark partnership, marking the first time the Mehrangarh Museum Trust has shared so many of the treasured objects of their collection,” commented Gary Tinterow, MFAH director. “We are deeply honored and grateful to be the first U.S. organization to present this show, and for the opportunity to provide visitors this unprecedented experience of India’s rich cultural history.”

“The fort of Jodhpur-Mehrangarh has been preserved as a record of the lives and legacy of the Rathores,” added His Highness Maharaja GajSingh II. “I look forward to sharing the artistic and cultural heritage of my country, India, and the city of Jodhpur and its people, with new audiences across North America.” 

Exhibition Overview
Peacock in the Desert is curated by a team of scholars and professionals from India: Dr. Mahrukh Tarapor, senior advisor for international initiatives at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Dr. Karni Singh Jasol, director of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur; the late Martand Singh, chief consultant from the Mehrangarh Museum Trust; and Dr. Angma Dey Jhala, associate professor at Bentley University, who serves as project advisor and volume editor for the accompanying catalogue. Three central, underlying themes woven throughout Peacock in the Desert build upon recent and emerging scholarship to deepen visitors’ understanding of the multifaceted character of a traditional Indian kingdom:

  • Interconnections: The relationships between palace and town, urban and rural, central empire and subsidiary kingdom, as well as those that resulted from migratory trade routes, marital alliances, and military partnerships/confrontations, all led to a dynamic crosspollination of new ideas and belief systems, which found brilliant expression in fine and decorative arts, architecture, design, performing arts, and more.
  • The role of women and artisans: Contrary to the popular assumption that royal women were quietly hidden away, the exhibition explores the crucial role they played as agents of cultural change and patrons of the arts, showcasing how the gender roles, social etiquette, and aesthetic practices employed by women influenced the identity of Indian courts.
  • Royal patronage and the continuity of tradition: An exploration of the royal courts and the ways they were able to preserve India’s cultural traditions, while at the same time absorbing and incorporating external influences.

These themes offer a new perspective on the cosmopolitan culture of the royal courts of the Marwar–Jodhpur region, communicated through the careful juxtaposition of objects, interpretive materials, and immersive installation within the exhibition’s six interlinked sections:

Tradition and Continuity: The Royal Wedding Procession
The exhibition opens with a dramatic recreation of a royal wedding procession with video projections of actual footage from royal weddings performed in the 20th century. Featuring elephant howdahs (seats), horse and elephant mannequins adorned with traditional wedding regalia, and royal insignia, this immersive environment introduces visitors to the role that marital alliances played in the lives of the citizens of Marwar-Jodhpur and in the development of the region’s aesthetic traditions.

The Rathores of Marwar
This section introduces the desert landscape of Marwar-Jodhpur, its diverse peoples, and the exhibition’s central protagonists: the Rathore clan that ruled the region from the 13th to the mid-20th century. Highlights include illuminated manuscript pages that illustrate the scenery of the region and detail the history of the dynasty; an exquisite wood and glass Mahadol (palanquin); textiles, such as turbans worn by various members of the desert community; and a model of the Mehrangarh Fort, in silver. Above: Gujarat, Palanquin (Mahadol), c. 1700–1730, gilded wood, glass, copper, and ferrous alloy, Mehrangarh Museum Trust.

Conquest and Alliance: The Rathores and the Mughals
The arrival of, and eventual takeover by, the Mughal Empire in 1561 began centuries of political and military alliances brokered between the Mughals and the Rathore clan. This section examines the movement of objects throughout these alliances in the 16th and 17th centuries, presenting ornate sabers, daggers, and rifles alongside 17th- and 18th-century paintings and illustrations of court and war scenes. The section culminates in the extraordinary 17th-century Lal Dera tent, one of the oldest, if not the only, intact Indian court tent of its time.

Zenana: Cross-cultural Encounters
In this section, paintings, carpets, textiles, jewelry, along with intricately-carved sandstone jalis (screens), from behind which women viewed courtly activities, evoke the setting of a royal zenana, the womens’ wing of a Rathore palace. Here, the zenana is explored as a dynamic cosmopolitan space that not only housed women and objects, but also functioned as a preserver of intangible cultural traditions through the propagation of heirlooms, rituals, and dress throughout the centuries. Among the furnishings shown in this section is an exceptional wood baradari (pavilion).

Durbar: The Rathore Court
As Mughal influence began to decline in the late 18th century, the Rathore durbar (royal reception) capitalized on its diminished power by attracting artists and craftsmen from their weakened court. This, in addition to the growing trend of exchanging artworks as gifts, led to a period of intense creativity in artistic and decorative production and a cross-fertilization of Mughal and Rathore styles, as indicated by the woven canopy and textiles, finely crafted arms and armor, and 18th- and 19th-century paintings on view.

The Raj 
Extravagant, large-scale objects immediately convey the tone of the last section of the exhibition, which explores the most dramatic period of transformation in Jodhpur’s history, triggered by the arrival of the British in 1818. Garments, paintings, decorative arts, and a 1944 Stinson L-5 Sentinel aircraft illustrate the influence of the British on the region and the unprecedented scale on which Jodhpur royalty began to embrace modernity and western culture as the movement for Indian independence—eventually granted in 1947—gained traction.

Publication
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India, written by Karni Singh Jasol and edited by Angma Dey Jhala, with contributions by Peter Alford Andrews, Robert Elgood, Catherine Glynn, Shailka Mishra, and Giles Tillotson. Informed by emerging scholarship and archival research, Peacock in the Desert takes a multidisciplinary approach, examining Jodhpur and the region of Marwar from a broader context than has been customary. The publication offers a new perspective on the acquisition and commissioning of objects through patronage, diplomacy, matrimonial alliances, trade, and conquest, and sheds light on the influential role of women at the royal courts for the first time. Peacock in the Desert also features newly commissioned photography of the nearly 250 objects on display.

Concurrently on View
Modernism on the Ganges: Raghubir Singh Photographs, a retrospective of Indian photographer Raghubir Singh’s career, will be on view along with Peacock in the Desert. Featuring nearly 90 works by the visionary artist, from the late 1960s through Singh’s last, unpublished projects of the late 1990s, the exhibition is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it debuted in October of 2017.

Born into an aristocratic family in Rajasthan, India, Singh (1942–1999) spent much of his life in Hong Kong, Paris, London, and New York. His lifelong subject, however, remained his native India. Working with a handheld camera and color slide film, he recorded India’s dense milieu in complex, frieze-like compositions, teeming with incident, fractured by reflections, and often framed by the curved windows of India’s ubiquitous Ambassador car. Modernism on the Ganges is on view in Houston from March 3 through June 3, 2018.  

Organization and Tour
Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in collaboration with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, Jodhpur, India.

Lead Underwriters:
Nidhika and Pershant Mehta 

Additional generous support for this exhibition is provided by:
Medha and Shashank Karve 
Sushila and Dr. Durga D. Agrawal 
National Endowment for the Arts
The E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation
Eddie and Chinhui Allen
Milton D. Rosenau, Jr. and Dr. Ellen R. Gritz 
Paul and Manmeet Likhari
Mr. and Mrs. H. Bruce Sallee
Vivian L. Smith Foundation 
Anne and Albert Chao 
Jag and Pinder Gill
Dr. and Mrs. Srinivasa Madhavan
Usha and Kumara Peddamatham
Dr. Mani and Anuradha Subramanian
Rama and Geetha Rau Yelundur
Mr. and Mrs. Sundaresan Bala 
Monjula and Ravi Chidambaram
Kathy and Marty Goossen 
Shantha Raghuthaman
Miwa S. Sakashita and Dr. John R. Stroehlein 

The accompanying catalogue is generously supported by Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund. 

About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Established in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums in the United States, with an encyclopedic collection of more than 65,000 works dating from antiquity to the present. The main campus comprises the Audrey Jones Beck Building, designed by Rafael Moneo and opened in 2000; the Caroline Wiess Law Building, originally designed by William Ward Watkin, with extensions by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed in 1958 and 1974; and the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden, designed by Isamu Noguchi and opened in 1986. Additional spaces include a repertory cinema, two libraries, public archives, and facilities for conservation and storage. Nearby, two house museums—Bayou Bend Collection and Gardens, and Rienzi—present American and European decorative arts. The MFAH is also home to the Glassell School of Art and its acclaimed Core Residency Program and Junior and Studio Schools; and the International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA), a leading research institute for 20th-century Latin American and Latino art.

About the Mehrangarh Museum Trust
Mehrangarh Museum Trust is India’s leading cultural institution and center of excellence, established in 1972 by the 36th Custodian of Marwar-Jodhpur, H. H. Maharaja Gaj Singh II, to make the Fort come alive for visitors. Today, Mehrangarh Museum has a unique importance as a repository of the artistic and cultural history of the large area of central Rajasthan, Marwar-Jodhpur, ruled by the Rathore dynasty. The Museum displays one of the most important and best-preserved collections of fine and applied arts from the Mughal period of Indian history, during which the Rathore rulers of Jodhpur maintained close links with the Mughal Emperors. Apart from the Museum, the Trust is at the forefront of conservation and restoration, a generous patron of the arts and music and a lively center of academic study. Mehrangarh Museum Trust is a recipient of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award in the field of Architectural Conservation, Cultural Heritage, and adaptive reuse.