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I have been waiting, with great expectation, for the opportunity to view the 200 exquisite pieces of art in the Asian Art Museum exhibit “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts.” I will finally get my chance to visit the exhibition while exploring the extraordinary culture of princely India. The paintings, photography, rich textiles, opulent jewelry, and beautiful furniture featured in the exhibit trace the change in the institution of Indian kingship from the collapse of the Moghul Empire in the early 18th century through the end of British rule in 1947.

At the “docent sneak peak” of the exhibition, hosted by Qamar Adamjee, assistant curator of South Asian art at the museum, I was able to view the exhibition highlights.  Among the wealth of pieces, my favorites include a watercolor painting from 1750, “Chand Bibi of Bijapur Shooting with her Ladies,” that offers a compelling glimpse of the life of the women behind the maharajas, revealing skills and talents usually associated with men and power.

Another favorite comes from a collection of photographs of “Jazz Age Maharajas” exploring the dual Indian and Western identities maharajas fashioned for themselves.  This grouping includes an impeccably styled photo of Yeshwant Rao Holkar II of Indore. For the jewelry lovers, there’s also the Cartier necklace created for Sir Bhupindra Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, created with over 3,000 diamonds.

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Adamjee discusses the stories behind the exhibit’s works: “Whether or not as deliberate design, the ways in which the subjects are depicted, their gestures and stances, the objects that have been included in or left out of their images, and the overall settings tell us something about how they wished to be viewed both in their own time and in posterity.”
Each of the objects in the exhibit was carefully created to convey an image and story about what a maharaja is and what a maharaja means in princely India. Looking at how and why those meanings were created through each object on display is the most intriguing story of the exhibit.

Adamjee likens the images of individual maharajas in the exhibit to pictures of modern-day celebrities, and even our decisions about which picture we choose for our Facebook profile. With this contemporary connection in mind, I visited the works by Sanjay Patel, the author and artist behind the stunning book, Ramayana, Divine Loophole. His work will be featured in its own gallery on the third floor of the museum, where he is carefully connecting his modern-day interpretations of Hinduism with pieces from the museum’s permanent collection. Patel is also doing the artwork for the exhibit outside of the museum building, as well as layering his brightly colored drawings in murals on the normally white walls of the museum’s interior courts.

Combining the historical and contemporary art worlds, the Asian Art Museum is bridging the opulence of royal India with the interpretations of a Pixar artist. Sanjay, with a personality as vibrant as his art, explains, “People see my work and think it’s unique. This is bull. My work is a total knock-off and the fact that people don’t see it shocks me,” he says.

“That’s the whole point of my show: to show people the connection between the most ancient artifacts and my modern interpretation. To place an exquisite stone sculpture of Vishnu from the 12th century next to a digital illustration created at this moment. Then to step back and to let people decide what’s original and what’s not. What’s special and what’s not, what’s art and what’s pop culture.”

For any lover of Sanjay Patel’s pop culture interpretations of Hinduism, the chance to see his work in direct conversation with the Maharaja exhibit and the rest of the museum’s collection of Indian antiquities is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s also an experience that could only happen in San Francisco.  Believe me when I say I’ll definitely return to this exhibit several times before it ends!

Oct. 21, 2011-April 8, 2012. Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco. $17 general; $13 seniors; $12 college students; $7 children 13-17; children under 13 free. (415) 581-3500. www.asianart.org.

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