Saturday, 1 August 2015

'The Maharajah's General' at the V&A

Having written my blog post about The Maharajah's General on Thursday, I was, by pure coincidence, at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Friday.

The V&A have a wonderful collection of exhibits from the time when The Maharajah's General (and Cawnpore) were written. The best known item is probably 'Tipoo's Tiger', a full-size model tiger with an organ inside which, when operated, produced sounds supposed to represent the cries of the dying soldier. Tipu Sultan, we can reasonably conclude, was no fan of the East India Company, whose soldiers killed him and looted the tiger in 1799.

The wealth of Tipu Sultan gave rise to the picture of Indian rulers living in the midst of massive displays of ostentatious luxury, such as Jack Lark sees in the Maharajah's palace. I think the tiger shows, though, that this wealth sometimes resulted in severe lapses of taste! At Saturday House, the Nana Sahib spent some of his money importing paintings from Europe which were hung randomly alongside portraits of himself. Outside of the grand State Rooms, European visitors often reported the homes of Indian rulers as shabby and dirty. By contrast, the State Rooms could be very grand indeed. Also at the V&A, you can see the throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first Sikh ruler of Punjab. It was made of gold in the first half of the 19th century and taken by the British when they annexed Punjab in 1849.

The State Rooms were designed to awe and many visitors returned to England with tales about the riches of the Indian rulers and the splendour of their palaces, as did Jack Lark.

The sword that Jack Lark is given in the story, richly ornamented with precious stones, is also no fantasy. This is from the treasury of Maharaja Holka, defeated at the Battle of Mehidpur in 1817. The stones are diamonds, emeralds and rubies.

If you're interested in India in the last days of East India Company rule, I strongly recommend a visit to the V&A. If you go before 11 October, you'll be able to see the stunning photographs of Captain Linnaeus Tripe, who documented India and Burma in photographs from 1852 to 1860. Unfortunately, I can't reproduce these on the blog, but you can see examples and read more about the exhibition HERE.  

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