Closer Ties: Uncovering the stories and connections of Rajasthani Collections across Canada

by Lauren Peters

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Canadian museums reveal unique stories that bind South Asian Collections across the country. This exhibit will explore Canadian acquisitions of traditional and contemporary Rajasthani art. It ties them to a city half a world away — Jaipur. Also known as the Pink City because of the unique pink terracotta wash on the city walls and many public buildings, Jaipur nestles between two mountain sides in Rajasthan. The foundation of the City in 1727 by Maharaja (King) Sawai Jai Singh II contributed to economic growth and the arts of his State, and the wider region. The city developed forms of art that mixed tradition with diverse influences and experiences (including colonialism), and amidst an emerging tourist economy. This exhibition unwraps views on art, tourism, and economics that shape collections in Rajasthan and Canada today, and asks questions of museums on how they might collect tomorrow.

A Tighter Knit

Unidentified maker, Perfume or Snuff Bottle, Gold with rubies, inlaid 5cm in height 17th or 18th century, AKM891, © The Aga Khan Museum

South Asian arts, particularly, those from Rajasthan, shaped aesthetic preferences around the world. This perfume or snuff bottle came from the Mughal Empire, which ruled over Northern India between the 16th — 19th centuries. It uses a traditional Rajasthani technique of metalwork, called kundan, which involves heating gold metal strips. The strips are then twisted in layers, one on top of another, to hold the gems in place. The lattice pattern keeps a strong hold on the gems and accentuates their size. Did you know the manufacturing of gemstones is still the major industry in Jaipur today?

Unidentified artist, Traditional modes of transport in India, Celluloid, Mica, painting in Company School Style, 11.10cm x 7.5cm, Luknow, India; c. 1911 CE, DE 403a-l, © Museum of Vancouver

Annie McKinney, a Canadian governess and missionary working in Northern India, brought home a series of cards from her travels. During the colonial period, painted cards became an easy souvenir to produce for travellers. The paintings on these use a technique that originates in Europe where the paint is applied to transparent mica mineral sheets, and produces an effect similar to watercolour. The style, known loosely as the Company style, refers to the combination of the small, detailed tradition of Rajasthani painting (often called miniature), with the ‘everyday’ subjects that Europeans desired. Did you know that different areas in Rajasthan had different styles of miniature painting that were distinct from one another? Today we might consider these mica paintings similar to postcards. Where was the last place you sent a physical postcard to?

The Art of Colours and Prints

Throughout history, textiles were shipped from India around the world. From among the rich textile traditions of the subcontinent, Jaipur is known for its hand printed and embellished textiles. They were used widely across the British Empire, which is how several examples reached Canada. Canadian collections tell us stories of travellers’ interests, throw up familiar designs and patterns in new contexts, and provide clues about how the production of textiles changed over time in Rajasthan.

Unidentified maker, Wood block for printing textiles, Hardwood, Carved, 5.86cm x 13.48cm x 5.86cm, Samer, Rajasthan; 1900–1933 CE, 936.27.3, © Royal Ontario Museum

This wood block of a mango or kairi design is characteristic of patterned textiles known as chintz, or textiles block printed by hand. You will see several examples in this section of paisley designs. South Asia has the longest history of exporting textiles around the world dating back to Roman times. They were traded for their beauty, the fine quality of the cloth, and the skill with which they were made. The popularity of the paisley print in Europe inspired the town of Paisley, Scotland to compete for the market and produce textiles with the same design. In the same way, colonial ties and competition in the textile market reflect Canada’s place names such as the Hudson’s Bay based on the company; or Halifax, Nova Scotia named for the Head of the British Board of Trade in 1749.

Unidentified maker, Jama (a type of male garment), Kesariya (saffron) cotton, overprinted with gold, hand printed, Jaipur, Rajasthan; Tc.470.73, © MSMS II Museum Trust

The festival of Gangaur in Jaipur celebrates spring, the harvest, childbearing, and marriage, centred on the deity Gauri (wife of Lord Shiva). Women celebrate the festival at the end of March by wearing bright colours of saffron, reds, and oranges. Dying textiles with saffron can be costly because of the extraction process and the time it takes to dye the fabric (just think how fine the stamens of saffron you buy for cooking are!). The gold block printed pattern signals the even greater luxury of this garment, as does the fine cotton, which hangs in clouds of weightless pleats when worn. Travellers came from all over, wearing similar textiles to watch the procession of Gauri through the City of Jaipur. Imagine how long it would take to dye all your own clothes. Are there any other colours you wear that are specific to festivals and holidays where you live?

Unidentified maker, Sari (wrapped garment), Fuchsia cotton with gold border, woven, 672cm x 81cm, India Acquired mid 20th century, DE 983, © Museum of Vancouver

This sari is from a donation made by Reverend Fred W. Schelanger, acquired during his missionary work in India from 1925–1992. Missionaries in India spread Christianity, and encouraged education and human rights (especially among women). It also created bonds across nations, through religion and migrating for work. Missionaries’ work declined in the second half of the 20th century after India’s Independence. Did Schelanger acquire it to ‘fit’ his (Western) idea of what constitutes a collection piece? Or was it out of an interest in the dyes or the gold threadwork? It is very likely this deep fuchsia is not a natural dye, pointing to the changing materials of the textile industry.

Unidentified maker, Sari (wrapped garment), Chintz cotton-tabby, Kota doriya, block printed, 482cm x 110cm, Sānganer, Rajasthan; Date unknown, 988.255.21, © Royal Ontario Museum

This was a gift to the Royal Ontario Museum by the academic Michael Gervers, acquired during his travels in Rajasthan. Saris, usually worn by women, are about 6–9 yards in length. There are different styles of wearing them, but the basic concept is to wrap it multiple times around the waist, and then over the torso (usually over a choli or blouse). This sari is a ‘kota doriya’, woven in the style distinct to the Kota region of Rajasthan (also a former princely state), south of Jaipur. It is lightweight, and can be woven in cotton or silk, and is recognised by the distinct checked pattern of the weave. The earthy colours from natural dyes are characteristic of Sānganer, just outside Jaipur, where this sari was probably block printed. With many changes to production lines and the move to synthetic dyes, how can artistic and technical skills such as these continue and evolve?

Unidentified maker, Kambal (Cape or shawl), Wool fiber and dye, Dyed and woven, 137 cm x 260 cm, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Before 1977 CE, Ef129, Photographed by Kyla Bailey Courtesy of the ©Museum of Anthropology

This kambal shawl or blanket is worn by men during the cooler seasons in Rajasthan. This particular item was purchased by the museum and studied by South Asian scholar, Dr. Stephen Inglis who helped collect objects for the museum. They are worn draped over one shoulder and folded over the other. Wool used to be completely woven in India. In this shawl the wool is mixed with merino, imported from another Commonwealth country, Australia, which is very common today. This piece is a valuable example of changing materials in Rajasthan’s textile industry. Do you think there is a similar shift in the textile industry across other Commonwealth countries?

Photography and Painting Entwined

Photography in Rajasthan developed at a similar pace to Europe and North America, but it grew out of a very different tradition of visual arts. This section will uncover the story of photography and its close relationship with the rulers of 19th century Jaipur. The Maharajas were great patrons of the arts. They took an interest in, and shaped, modern art, especially Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II (r. 1835–1880) and his successor Sawai Madho Singh II (r. 1880–1922), who supported the opening of Jaipur’s City Museum. The skill of both local and visiting photographers laid the foundations for making the iconic tourist attractions of Jaipur what they are today.

Photo by VED on Unsplash
Faizullah, Entertainment in a Garden Palace, Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, painting, 50.50 cm x 69.20 cm, 1765–1770 CE, AKM921, © The Aga Khan Museum

Make sure a royal palace is on your list of must-sees in South Asia! This ‘miniature’ court painting — called so because of the fine details and small scale of figures, not the literal size of the painting — shows us what one might have looked like — or does it? Did you notice the hunters or boats in the distance? This looks a little different from what we might be used to, but the artist is playing around with perspective in order to draw our attention to the garden and inner walls of the palace instead of the background. The central palace within a city is important in Hindu architecture and city planning — of which the Chandra Mahal of the City Palace Jaipur is a perfect example. Here, the artist purposely skews — or adapts — a Western use of perspective and incorporates it into a local painting tradition. Such trends were precursors for artists who used another trend — the technology of photography — to depict Jaipur’s palaces and architecture in the 19th century.

Unidentified artist, Kedari Ragini, page from dispersed Ragamala series, Pigment on paper, Painting 28.50cm x 20.60cm Jaipur, Rajasthan; 19th century 2019.74.8 © Royal Ontario Museum

Ragamala comes from the word “raga” which means musical scale, and the paintings that illustrate them are meant to evoke the colour or emotion of a particular raga. Ragamala means ‘garland of ragas’. Such series of paintings are commonly found across Rajasthani courts. In this case, the painting seems to draw on the local landscape and buildings of Jaipur, depicting an island palace like the Jal Mahal or ‘water palace’, that sits in the middle of Man Sagar Lake. A prince listens to a musician on a palace terrace, as boatman naps and waits. The unique buildings of Jaipur grew to become visual landmarks in the 19th century through painting such as this, laying the foundation for photographic images doing the same later. This musical garland series was dispersed, and likely has parts around the world that are now disconnected.

Raja Deen Dayal, The Wind palace at Jeypur, from photograph album of Views of India, Photograph, 26.40cm x 20.50cm Jaipur, Rajasthan, Late 19th century, 2004.31.1.20, © Royal Ontario Museum

The Hawa Mahal of Jaipur is recognizable to residents of Jaipur and visitors alike. Built by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the screened windows allowed the royal ladies following purdah to stay hidden from view while watching processions or other public events. Purdah is the social practice in which women lived separately from men, and did not meet with unrelated men. Deen Dayal would create multiple prints of places he found significant and distribute them widely among royalty and elites including foreigners, as a way to secure larger commissions. Today, Early photographs of Jaipur such as this one of the Hawa Mahal, popularised architecture and views that tourists seek out for Instagram shots today. What emotions do you think Deen Dayal is trying to capture in this photo for visitors?

Maharajah Sawai Ram Singh II, The Hawa Mahal in Jaipur, Wet collodion glass plate negative, Digital reprint photograph, 30.5cm x 38.1cm, c. 1870 CE, Jaipur, Rajasthan; 2012.04.0057–0007, ©MSMS II Museum Trust

This image by Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh is strikingly different compared to Deen Dayal’s close up, and many of the other images online you see today. The Hawa Mahal sits at a distance to the hustle and bustle of daily activity. This photograph is signaling more than historic architecture. Seeing the work of stone masons in front of the Hawa Mahal introduces the infrastructure projects Ram Singh initiated on top of those by Sawai Pratap Singh. Sawai Ram Singh makes the political statement front and center framing the Hawa Mahal as a symbol of royal building projects. Viewers are seeing a rare depiction of Hawa Mahal where it is not romanticizing their past but looking to the future. Scroll back to Deen Dayal’s image, which one is more captivating to you?

Maharajah Sawai Ram Singh II, Self portrait, Wet collodion glass plate negative, Digital reproduction Photograph, 10.8 cm x 6.0 cm, c.1870 CE, Jaipur, Rajasthan; M 2012.04.0073–0007, ©MSMS II Museum Trust

Maharajah Sawai Ram Singh II of Jaipur was known as a reformer, committed to improving the quality of life of his people, such as by promoting education, building hospitals, and introducing street lighting to Jaipur. He reigned from 1835 till his death in 1880. He was a patron of the arts and a noted ‘amateur’ photographer himself. Many of his cameras were western brands from England or Berlin, and other equipment is thought to have been created in Jaipur by his own craftsmen. In this image, he follows the common style of portraiture, where subjects are seated or standing with props or a table nearby. Usually, the items surrounding an individual and their clothing mark who they are. What do the items in this picture tell us about Sawai Ram Singh? What can we infer about the relationship between Britain and Rajasthan through his sartorial style?

Panchal Mansaram, ‘Maharaja’ Paint, paper, ink, plywood, Collage, 124.50 cm × 124.50 cm, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, 1966–1968 CE, 2017.15.1, © Royal Ontario Museum

In this contemporary artwork, pictures of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (one of Canada’s most famous politicians and third-longest serving Prime Minister) surround a central image of the modernizer Maharajah Sawai Ram Singh II on the left. The photograph of Sawai Ram Singh is taken from the self portrait that is also in this exhibition. The artist, Mansaram, is commenting on the mass media attention the two figures received, separated by time and space. Trudeau fought for unifying Canada during the height of the separatist movement in Canada, and Sawai Ram Singh II too was known for being a reformer. The collage also ties together Rajasthan’s traditional art with photography in a new way, because this work knots together many small detailed paintings (drawing on the miniature tradition) with photographs, in a single frame. The intense orange backdrop is also reminiscent of Rajasthani miniatures. What emotion does the collage bring up for you?

Lala Deen Dayal Amber Palace and Fort, Albumen print mounted on card, Photography Photograph 26.40 cm x 35.50 cm Amber, Rajasthan; 1888 CE, 2011.020001–0008, © MSMS II Museum Trust

This striking view of the Palace-fort complex of Amber foregrounds people and activity. You catch a glimpse of daily life. This makes it realistic to envision oneself there. Dayal positions Amber as a significant historic locale in his album, which includes other locations in and around Jaipur. How does this view of Amber compare to Dayal’s photo of the Hawa Mahal? What tools and techniques is Dayal using to draw in his audience? What techniques do modern photographers use to draw travellers into their images?

Did you miss the Exhibition?

If you were not able to visit the Jaipur Exhibitions of 1883 you are not alone! It was the first time that local art and crafts was displayed alongside examples from around the region and the world for comparison. There were also examples from several royal collections. Look closely at the Rajasthani objects collected and the techniques being developed for display and collection in other parts of the world. Compare them with the collections and display pieces of the Maharajas of Jaipur.

Unidentified woodworkers, Model of Jaipur Gate, Wood (padauk) with dark stain, Carved and stained, 132cm x 132.50cm x 35.50 cm, Jaipur, Rajasthan; c. 1898 CE, 2001.23.1, © Royal Ontario Museum

This exquisite miniature recreation of the Jaipur Residency Gate at the Palace was a gift from the Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II (1862–1922) to Victor Law from his time in Jaipur in 1896–1898. Law was the Political Agent at Alwar (a princely state to the east of Jaipur) and was given this model gateway, representing a real one between Indians and the British in Jaipur. Law eventually settled in Canada, and displayed this gateway, connecting Rajasthani fine arts and the British colonies, in his home. A collection of items including the gate passed to his brother living in Canada, and later a relative (a painter), C. Anthony Law. How do you think Rajasthan’s history of industrial crafts might have inspired his paintings? Do you have an art piece on display at home from another Commonwealth country?

Unidentified makers ,Anglo-Indian Stationery Box, Sandalwood, ebony, ivory, Carved and inlaid (sadeli) 13.50cm x 24.10cm x 15.80cm Mumbai (?), India 19th century DE 223 Museum of Vancouver

What do you think makes the box ‘Anglo-Indian’? It fuses a functional European-origin stationery item with South Asian design and decoration. This intriguing donation, points to the rich art skills in South Asia, and artists’ ability to adapt them to non-traditional forms. This box would have required both carving and inlaying skills. The image of Ganesh is eloquently carved on the front focusing viewers on the Hindu symbols first. It ties viewers to a larger colonial discussion across the Commonwealth: how new hybrid aesthetics shape what we learn about evolving cultures. What does it say about the forces of politics and economics influencing the arts?

Unidentified marble carvers, Noble and attendants riding elephant, Marble, Carved, 24.40 cm x 18.70 cm x 7 cm, Jaipur, Rajasthan; Late 19th century, 2001.23.4, © Royal Ontario Museum

Elephants were widely used for transportation, especially for royal processions and celebrations. They are associated with intelligence, power, and wisdom. They are symbols of good luck too, and decorate the home, to keep negativity out and bring residents good fortune. The owner of this piece, Governor General Law, acquired it from Jaipur around the same time as the gate, probably to decorate a mantle in his home. Pieces like this were popular products made by the School of Art established by Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II in 1886. This too was transferred to Anthony Law in Canada. It can be compared to Indigenous and settler soapstone carvings of wildlife in Canada, purchased when visiting different regions of the country.

Unidentified makers, Charma dhal (rhinoceros-hide shield), Rhinoceros hide with brass, rock crystal, bronze, gold paint, and lacquer, Cured hide, enamelled and painted, 40cm x 7cm, India, 18th century, 948.1.53, © Royal Ontario Museum

This intense red polished shield came to Canada through the personal weaponry collection of the first Earl Kitchener who was the head of the British Army in India in 1902. His name is also (in)famous throughout the Commonwealth by virtue of his military career, in the course of which Britain’s colonial holdings increased. A shield might seem an appropriate object for a military man to own. It may also have been part of a greater interest in collecting: it is less well known that Kitchener undertook archaeological surveys in West Asia, gathering collections for European museums while working for the army. Have you ever wondered how Kitchener Ontario received its name in 1916?

Unidentified maker, Shield (Dhal) Hide (?), Painted 50.5cm diameter, Jaipur, Rajasthan; Late 18th century, MJM79.590, © MSMS II Museum Trust

Look closely at this resplendent shield’s imagery, taken from popular courtly narratives of Rajput valour and bravery. It is believed to have belonged to Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, and the superb quality and rich decoration on the shield suggest that it was a ceremonial object, for use on formal occasions This same ruler was also the patron responsible for the Hawa Mahal, as well as many other artistic projects from painting to poetry! There are obvious stylistic likenesses to the shield above including the four central bosses and gold edged frame. Floral motifs of in the Japanese style surround Sawai Pratap Singh’s hunt, an artistic convention that was widespread in Rajasthan at this time, revealing the far-flung links of the Jaipur court. What international connections do your formal accessories reveal about you?

Unidentified maker, Relief with lion-hunting scene, Marble, Carved, 65 cm x 112 cm x 6.5 cm, Jaipur, Rajasthan; 18th century, 927.53.2, © Royal Ontario Museum

The Royal Ontario Museum was gifted this relief from the Imperial Institute in the United Kingdom. The Imperial Institute began out of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 held at South Kensington, London, UK which highlighted South Asian Art and promoted colonialism. Collection pieces were returned, gifted or sold as part of the closure of the Imperial Institute (later Commonwealth Institute) to Commonwealth members in 2003. India and Canada’s shared colonial ties brought this piece to Canada and now it can be admired at the Royal Ontario Museum. Marble has historically been valued in both Rajasthan and Canada, for its fine quality and smooth finish. Can you think of a museum experience seeing a marble carving from a Commonwealth country? Where was it collected from?

All Sewn Up

Canadian collections from Rajasthan are eclectic and include an array of distinctive arts from Jaipur. Many of these objects were acquired in a colonial context. This is a contested period of history that we share with South Asia. It is also the case that the demand for souvenirs and gifts interacted with the traditional arts and crafts of Jaipur to create new markets and products. How will South Asian collections in Canada continue to grow and be acquired in the future? Why did some items reach Canada in particular and not another Commonwealth country? How can connecting our collections as this exhibition has done, benefit Indian museums and visitors as well as Canadian ones?

Acknowledgements

The Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum & The Commonwealth Association of Museums

Thank You to our contributors: The Royal Ontario Museum, The Museum of Anthropology, The Museum of Vancouver, and The Aga Khan Museum

First and foremost I must thank my main editor and research supervisor on this project Mrinalini Venkateswaran. Thank you so much for your constant support and time editing and helping with the research of this project. I could not have done this without your help.

I would like to thank our partners again that put on this exhibit, the Commonwealth Association of Museums Ann Ramsden, and Rachel Erickson, for giving me this opportunity. And the MSMS II Museum Trust at the Jaipur City Palace for partnering. I must also thank Medhavi Gandhi and Wendy Molnar from the Association for offering their guidance.

I want to thank the contributors to this exhibit from across Canada. I thank you from the bottom of my heart, because this could not have been possible without our collections. The Royal Ontario Museum with special thanks to Dr. Deepali Dewan for your insight. The Museum of Vancouver, thank you, and I am grateful for your time as well. The Aga Khan Museum, thank you for the use of the beautiful pieces. Much thanks to the Museum of Anthropology and for their contributions.

Sources

C. Anthony Law. Canadian War Museum.https://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artists/law1eng.html. Accessed March 29, 2021.

Collections Online: British Museum. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG73037. Accessed March 29, 2021.

Handmade in Rajasthan. 2021. http://www.industries.rajasthan.gov.in/content/industries/handmadeinrajasthandepartment.html. March 29, 2021.

Imperial Institute. The British Empire: Where the Sun never sets.https://www.britishempire.co.uk/resource/imperialinstitute.htm. Accessed March 29, 2021.

Needleman, Deborah. The Ancient Art of Jaipur Block Printing, and What It Means to India. The New York Times Style Magazine. May 18, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/18/t-magazine/block-print-jaipur-india.html.

Sachdev, Vibhuti & Tillotson, Giles. Jaipur City Palace. Roli Books. 2008.

Tillotson, Giles. “The Jaipur Exhibition of 1883.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Series 3, 14, 2 (July 2004), p. 111–126.

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