Progressing chronologically, the visitor initially experiences the extent of the maharaja's importance through incredibly intricate paintings of processions and a life-size model elephant fully prepped as if to carry a ruler. In accordance with the concept of darshan, the act of seeing and being seen by a superior being, god or king, maharajas regularly undertook such public parades in all their splendour. The detail of one painting reveals a girl dancing on an elephant's tusk: although created with some artistic licence, the piece exemplifies just how impressive these processions would have been.
While darshan remained a central concept, it did not stand alone: a maharaja had to be well-versed in rajadhama, the duties and behaviour appropriate to a king, such as the protection of subjects, and administration of justice and punishment.
The charitable role of the maharaja is beautifully illustrated in pictorial representations including paintings and later, photographs, of the ceremony of the ruler being weighed in gold (seen right).
The jewels on display are astounding. While beautiful emeralds and other stones adorned a maharaja's exterior, jewellery also had a more private aspect, seen most clearly in the decoration on the reverse of a belt, designed solely for the wearer to see and enjoy. The shift of power and the political change affecting India during the late 18th and early 19th century is also illustrated by the changing styles of dress and, as is seen later on, the distinctive clothes marked out by their western buttons and braiding demonstrates just how dominant the 'British model of modernity' was.
The history of the presence of the British in India is well-charted in terms of exhibits, although I felt that the history of the East India Company needed slightly more explanation. As the British became the ruling force, the maharajas began to be viewed as exotic beings, yet, educated by English tutors and living a very British lifestyle, they slowly adapted accordingly. A striking photograph was of a maharaja and his wife in front of the House of Commons in the early 20th century; looking every inch the English couple, the wife wears white gloves with her sari to conform to the 'look' of the time.
The final room of the exhibition is outstanding for several reasons, not least the huge Rolls Royce dominating the centre. The car illustrates the scale of the patronage given by the maharajas to then fledgling western companies- Maharaja Bhupal Singh's order of a fleet of Phantoms was one of the early successes of the firm. Cecil Beaton and Man Ray's photographs of the beautiful wives of the maharajas, such as Sita Devi, demonstrate to what extent fashion too was influenced / an influence on the ruling class of India. The exhibition closes with a final comment on the role of the maharajas today, where they remain symbols of regional identity; a great change from their crucial leadership roles in the ancient court culture of the country.
Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts is on at the V&A until 17 January 2010