How much cultural understanding can be gleaned from opulence? That’s a question posed by Seattle Art Museum’s latest exhibit, Peacock in the Desert: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India. The showcase features 250 relics from the extensive collection of 17th- and 18th-century artifacts normally housed in Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort museum.
The action begins even before reaching the Simonyi Galleries’ feature exhibit on the fourth floor, as the third floor boasts a colorful recreation of an Indian royal wedding procession. It’s a lavish display of celebratory red and gold hues, complete with horse figures in authentic adornment garments, an elephant with a luxurious howdah (carriage), flags, musical instruments, and a video on an overhead screen detailing what actually goes into the procession. It’s the type of instantly captivating visual that soaks in its unabashed showiness and makes you want to join the parade.
The works on display are the result of the Rathore clan, which ruled the region from the 13th century into the 20th. Even the tiny sliver of their collection that’s made its way to Seattle makes clear the royal families’ commitment to arts patronage. Certainly there is anthropological value in examining the art with which elites surround themselves, but it should always be recognized as a thin slice of the full picture. (If the contents of Jeff Bezos’ mansions were on display hundreds of years from now, we hope people wouldn’t think that encapsulates what it was like to live in 2018.)
The regality continues as you enter the heart of the exhibit on the fourth floor. The first thing to greet visitors is a gobsmacking golden palanquin (a large box carried by other humans for transportation) with a stupefying amount of ornamentation. The next room boasts a mobile palace made of vibrant pink, green, and red silk textiles—heavy on the embroidery—so that royals could maintain their elegance wherever travels took them. To quote Mel Brooks, “It’s good to be the king.”
A standout aesthetic across all items on display is a relentless, exacting attention to detail. It’s safe to say the Rathores weren’t minimalists when it came to the art they commissioned. Not a millimeter is wasted for anything without adornment: A hand-built baradari (pavilion) boasts floral carvings and paintings on its posts; the iron chains holding a jade jhula (swing) feature iron animal figurines as links; even the weaponry from axes to bowes feature critters carved into the cheek or intricate metallurgy on the faces of the limbs.
Strangely, the one area where detail is not stressed is the human faces in the paintings. Peacock in the Desert features some fabulous paintings depicting grand scenes in the royal courtyard and beyond—the type in which seemingly a million different things are going on as your eyes scan every inch (1775’s The Coronation of Rama, Folio 86 from the Ramacharitamanas being a prime example). But for some reason attention to detail never made it to depicting faces: Almost all of the works have the same standard side profile for women and men (though sometimes they mix up the facial hair for the gents). From a Western perspective, this repetitiousness just seems so odd—pouring so much time into these paintings only to have hundreds of guys on the canvas look exactly the same (perhaps it’s just a style the Rathore preferred, or a way of distinguishing class). It doesn’t diminish them all as a whole, as works like The Predecessors of Rama depict generations of genealogy in a series of small portraits, capturing the Rathore clan in bright caricature (and in this case, the similarity in faces makes more sense—they’re family). Maharao Umed Singh of Kota on a Hunt (1780) stands out from the painted pack simply because large wild tigers and the lush forest canopy take the focus instead of the human figures.
The tail end of the exhibit offers an interesting glimpse into the British Raj in India during the late 19th/early 20th century. In addition to a fetching art-deco bejeweled royal headdress, portrait paintings, like the officially commissioned one of Maharaja Sardar Singh adorned in Indo-Western fashion, abandon traditional Indian aesthetics in favor of a standard European style, which offers a stunning contrast to the rest of the exhibit.
The whole package is less insightful than awe-inspiring. For pure aesthetic spectacle alone, Peacock in the Desert is worth a visit to SAM, even if the main takeaway ends up being “Dang, those royals had some crazy nice stuff.”