The Maharaja of Baroda, Khande Rao Gaekwad
by descent to
Maharaja Sayaji Rao Gaekwad
Maharaja Pratapsingh Rao Gaekwad
The Maharani of Baroda, Sita Devi, former wife of Pratapsingh Rao Gaekwad
Private Collection since 1985
Indian Art Exhibition, Delhi, 1902-1903
Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Court, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 10 October 2009 - 17 January 2010
Maharaja: Pracht der indischen Fürstenhöfe, Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, 12 February - 24 May 2010
George Watt, Indian Art at Delhi, Being the Official Catalogue of the Delhi Exhibition, 1902-1903, Calcutta: The Superintendent of Government Printing, India, 1903, pl. 59
Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts, London: V&A Publishing, 2009, pl. 138, pp. 164-165
Anna Jackson, Amin Jaffer und Christiane Lange, Maharaja: Pracht der indischen Fürstenhöfe, Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2010, pl. 138, pp. 164-165
This exquisite bejeweled and pearl canopy was created en suite with the world renowned Pearl Carpet of Baroda that was sold at Sotheby's Doha, 19 March 2009, lot 401. (fig. 1) These are the only two surviving pieces from an ensemble of five commissioned in 1865 by the then Maharaja of Baroda, Khande Rao Gaekwad (r. 1856-1870.) (fig.3) The suite was comprised of four rectangular carpets, one being the aforementioned sold 'Pearl carpet,' and one circular, the lot offered here. This masterpiece was reputedly intended by the Maharaja as a gift to the tomb of the prophet Mohammed at Medina showing his admiration and esteem for Islam.
For over 100 years, the Pearl Canopy of Baroda has been hidden from public view. The 1903 Delhi showcase of Indian Art ( fig. 12) is the last time the canopy was on view until its sudden appearance last year in the exhibition Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.[i] The canopy was mentioned and the Pearl Carpet of Baroda was included in an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1913,[ii] and the 1985 exhibition "INDIA!" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.[iii] Embroidered with millions of 'Basra' pearls, and embellished with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, this opulent suite exemplifies the grandeur, wealth and sophistication of the courts of the Maharajas.
The city of Baroda was first mentioned in historical accounts in the early ninth century. Over the centuries the region was controlled by different powers, including the Gupta and Mughal Empires. During the Mughal era (1526-1857), ongoing warfare characterized the region as local Marathas, an Indo-Aryan caste of Hindu warriors, resisted the new power and fought for their territories. However, the ever-growing British presence in India became overwhelming, and the Maratha Empire was turned into a principality of the British Raj in 1818. Until 1948 the Gaekwads remained rulers of Baroda, although the de facto power was in British hands. After the formation of present-day India, Baroda became part of Gujarat.[iv]
During the British era, industries flourished in Baroda and the state maintained its role as a cultural center. It was during this period that Khande Rao ascended to the throne as the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda in 1856 and established a court that was renowned throughout the subcontinent for its sophistication and richness. The new Maharaja was known for his love of display and magnificence, and generous patronage of the arts and architecture. He had a special fondness for jewels and acquired some of the most magnificent gemstones known to the world, such as the 128-carat "Star of the South" diamond.[v]
During the second half of the nineteenth century, art-loving Indian lords such as Khande Rao had access to some of the most talented artists who had previously worked for the Mughal court. Due to the strong political and cultural ties between the subcontinent's Muslim empire and Persia, the oeuvre of Mughal artists had been influenced by Safavid art. As a result, a Mughal style emerged that was an amalgamation of Persian and indigenous Indian traditions. Following the collapse of the Mughal Empire in the eighteenth century, jewelers and gem cutters were among those displaced court-artists forced to seek new patrons at the smaller, but still very lavish, households of local Maharajas. As these artists came from a distinct artistic tradition, their work retained strong characteristics of the old regime and the art commissioned by their new patrons was strongly influenced by traditional Mughal aesthetics. Textile art had a long-standing tradition in Baroda and many former imperial craftsmen engaged in that trade found a new home at the Maratha court. Gem-cutters and jewelers were particularly welcome at court not only because Baroda was one of the richest of all states in the subcontinent, but also because of the old Indian court tradition of giving expensive gifts.[vi]
Bejeweled textiles embellished with metallic thread and precious and semi-precious gems were not unknown in the Eastern world. Weavings decorated in such a manner were kept in very high regard not only in India, but also in Safavid Persia and Ottoman Turkey. The earliest known bejeweled carpets, adorned with pearls, jewels, and gold, date from the Sassanian period (226-636) in Persia.[vii] Even fables from The Thousand and One Nights mention carpets decorated with pearls, rubies, and turquoise, not unlike the weaving in the portrait of Mehmet II by Gentile Bellini, from the times of the Abassid Caliphate (750-1258).[viii] The Pearl Canopy of Baroda is an exceptional nineteenth-century revival of this ancient form. Existing examples of Indian textile art from the 1800s show the continuity of the tradition of embellishing fabrics with three-dimensional adornments. For lengths of dress material from the 1850s decorated with metallic thread and pieces of sparkling beetle wing, an inexpensive alternative to gemstones, see Rosemary Crill, Indian Embroidery, London, 1999, figs. 62 and 64, pp. 70-73.
In early accounts the five works were referred to as components of a singular Pearl Carpet of Baroda. The Pearl Carpet became instantly famous and was the subject of dazzling accounts by foreign visitors to the Palace within 10 years of its creation.[ix] In the 1903 exhibition of Indian Art in Delhi, the Pearl Canopy of Baroda and one rectangular carpet were loaned by the Maharaja and remarked upon in the catalogue, "Perhaps if any one article could be singled out as more freely discussed at the Exhibition than any other, it would be the Pearl Carpet of Baroda."[x]
Another visitor to the palace, the Reverend Edward St. Clair Weeden, whose account A Year with the Gaekwar of Baroda, was published in 1909, describes being shown "four great squares, each as large as a fair-sized carpet,...[which] hung on the walls, apparently of tapestry. Closer inspection showed that they consisted entirely of jewels---pearls, emeralds, rubies, diamonds and so on..." [xi] By this time the 'carpet' was not on the floor, but hung in the palace of the Maharaja. (fig. 4) Indeed, this pearl covered, jewel inlaid 'carpet' would not seem to be the most appropriate floor covering. However, by 1914, when E. L. Tottenham visited the Palace, she noted that only one of the rectangular carpets was still remaining :
"Upon the wall hung the oblong [rectangular]-shaped and famous pearl carpet ... It was made in duplicate, the first to be dispatched to Mecca to go over the Tomb of Mohammed. This one now only remained,... in size 6 feet by 10 feet, is made of seed pearls, except the blue, green and red lines in the floral design, which are of coloured glass beads." [xii]
Western travelers also noted that many Indian rulers presented lavish gifts to their visitors, courtiers, religious institutions, and even the poor. The tradition of gift-giving and the love for precious gems, coupled with a solid financial background, enabled maharajas and local lords to offer the most lavish gifts, often trying to outshine each other. During his journey to India, the British traveler John Hawkins noted that during a court visit pearls, coral, and amber were given to courtiers and holy men.[xiii] In such a generous culture, the most unusual and lavish objects were executed by court craftsmen in order to express the sophistication of the patron and to impress and dazzle not only the receiver of the gift but also those witnessing the presentation. Khande Rao was following this tradition in this generous donation, possibly with the desire to relate his own sophistication and wealth to those of the Mughal emperors. The practice of donating gifts of precious materials such as gold and jewels to Mecca with the intention of indicating one's devotion to Islam, may also have been a factor in the Maharaja's commission.[xiv]
While Khande Rao was himself a Hindu, several writers suggest that he ordered the suite to be given to a mosque in a show of his respect and admiration for Islam.[xv] Weeden also notes that the Maharaja died before the gift could be sent to Medina and his successors did not feel compelled to carry out his wishes. Maharaja Khande Rao Gaekwad died in 1870 and it appears the carpet had been completed by then. He died of natural causes, having survived an attempt made on his life by his brother Mulhar Rao who had tried to kill him with a concoction of crushed diamonds.[xvi] It has also been suggested that it may have been his brother who was responsible for commissioning the pearl carpet for a local temple, which he then decided to keep.[xvii] This is the only mention of the carpet having been ordered by anyone other than Khande Rao. Both Maharajas were known for their love of luxury but Khande Rao was particularly passionate about jewels, as evidenced by his 1867 purchase of the "Star of the South," one of the largest diamonds in the world. The diamond, the Pearl Carpet and the Pearl Canopy of Baroda remained in the Gaekwad family collection, and were amongst the valued pieces in her personal collection which Maharani Sita Devi, wife of the then Maharajah, Pratapsingh Rao Gaekwad, brought with her when she moved to Monaco in 1946. (fig. 5)
The design of the Pearl Canopy of Baroda with elaborate swirling vinery and dense floral elements is closely related to the eighteenth-century millefleurs designs of the very finely woven pashmina shawls and rugs of Northern India. For examples of such delicate weavings see Daniel Walker, Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era, New York, 1998, figs. 127 and 128, pp. 130-131. The round format of the canopy lends itself to centralized designs such as the sunburst or "Shamsa" pattern that appear in Mughal miniature paintings, for example the opening page to an album of calligraphy and miniatures assembled for Shah Jahan.[xviii] In its intricate design and use of negative and positive, the border design of the canopy also reflects miniature paintings such as an illuminated manuscript roundel from a page now in the Walters Art Library, Baltimore.[xix] Related examples appear in two manuscripts sold Sotheby's London, 28 April 2004, lot 31 and 3 May 2001, lot 48. (figs. 6 and 8) Swirling floral vinery is a design element that figures in many Mughal and later Indian decorative arts, such as metal work, as in the steel Dhal, sold Sotheby's New York, 19 March 2008, lot 336. (fig. 7)
There are several theories on the intended use or display of the five components of the carpet. In the 1903 exhibition catalogue, the author notes that the circular portion would have been a veil or canopy and that the four carpets would have been held in place on the floor by four large gold and diamond inset weights.[xx] Another supposition is that the four rectangular carpets were 'walls' suspended from gold pillars topped with diamond encrusted gold cones, above which was placed the circular 'roof,' or canopy.[xxi] Weeden writes that the five carpets would have formed a superstructure for the tomb and been supported by the four gold and diamond cones.[xxii] More recently, it has been suggested that the carpets and pillars formed a structure that would have been carried in procession from Mecca to Medina and then deposited in the treasury of the mosque.[xxiii] (fig. 9) The carpets were hung during the 1903 exhibition, and in all later descriptions they are noted as being displayed like tapestry on the walls of the Palace at Baroda.
This legendary ensemble would be mentioned whenever a Maharaja of Baroda was the subject of an article; for example Michael White, writing in the New York Times, May 13, 1906, "How Maharaja Gaekwar Became Ruler of Baroda," states that:
"Maharaja Gaekwar possesses the most costly piece of jewelry in the world. In dazzling magnificence, it never has been, or is ever likely to be, excelled. This treasure is in the form of a shawl or cloak of woven pearls, edged with a deep border of arabesque designs of diamonds, rubies, emeralds and sapphires."
The Pearl Carpet of Baroda reflects the confluence of many Indian decorative traditions, in addition to being one of the most luxuriant works of art ever created. But its allure lies not only in the richness of the materials from which it was made; as Stuart Cary Welch writes:
"However unbridled the opulence of its million pearls of excellent quality, of its fine diamonds, rubies, and emeralds beyond count, the design is suitably restrained and dignified, a classic arabesque descended from the Mughal tradition and probably inspired by the legendary jeweled covering ordered by Shah Jahan to adorn the cenotaph of Mumtaz-Mahal in the Taj Mahal. (fig. 10) If one approaches with an eye only for worldly delight, or even amusement, one soon backs off, sensing the degree of underlying seriousness and religious devotion."[xxiv]
It seems very likely that this suite was commissioned to imitate the Mughal bejeweled coverlet woven for the tomb of Mumtaz-Mahal at the Taj Mahal. A ruler as grand and powerful as Shah Jahan would most certainly have been an inspiration for a Maharaja such as Khande Rao. In the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, a work of art was created that has captured the imagination of viewers for over a century to such an extent that its appeal transcends the use of pearls and gems. This work remains a singular masterpiece and a true reflection of the splendor of the Maharajas.
Besides being a magnificent manifestation of the taste and power of the maharajas, the Pearl Carpet of Baroda in its entirety, and the Pearl Canopy of Baroda by inclusion therein, is also a reminder of the flourishing pearl-trade between the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf. Throughout the centuries, locals from this region traded extensively with merchants from all around Asia and Europe, with their most reliable buyers coming from India. By the seventeenth century, most of the pearls harvested in the southern Gulf region and along the Arabian coast eventually ended up in the treasuries of the Indian elite who, as great lovers of gems and pearls, used them to adorn their lavish jewelry, decorative art objects, and textiles. The pearl trade dominated the Gulf's economy and reached its golden age in the mid-nineteenth century. Some of the highest quality pearls were discovered at this time and were then sold in Basra, the center of the trade, mostly to Indian merchants. Due to the excellence and abundance of the pieces exported from Basra, pearls from the Gulf region were known as 'Basra pearls' throughout the world. Between the 1850s and the early twentieth century, the vast majority of the pearls utilized by Indian jewelers were 'Basra pearls.' The Pearl Canopy of Baroda is an exemplar of the Indian love of these pearls, its scintillating surface composed of countless 'Basra pearls.' To execute such a unique and precious object Khande Rao chose the best raw materials to match the unparalleled craftsmanship of artists he commissioned to execute this extraordinary work of art. Completely covering its surface with the most valued type of pearls, a meticulous work that took years to complete clearly indicates that the Maharaja of Baroda only accepted the very best in design, craftsmanship and material.
[i] Jackson, Anna and Amin Jaffe ed., Maharaja: The Splendour of India's Royal Courts, London, 2009, pp. 164-165.
[ii] The Times, London, February 22, 1913, p. 9.
[iii] Welch, Stuart Cary, India: Art and Culture 1300-1900, New York, 1986, p. 438.
[iv] For more information, see Francis Watson, A Concise History of India, London, 1987.
[v] Prior, Katherine and John Adamson, Maharajas' Jewels, New York, 2000, p. 190.
[vi] Bhuj Bushan, Jamila, Indian Jewelry, Ornaments and Decorative Designs, Bombay, 1964, p. 74.
[vii] Pope, Arthur Upham, A Survey of Persian Art, Vol. II, Tehran, 1938, p. 2273.
[viii] Carboni, Stefano, ed., Venice and the Islamic World, New York, 2006, p. 68.
[ix] In 1880, George M. Birdwood wrote in his book The Industrial Arts of India: "But the most wonderful piece of embroidery ever known was the chaddar or veil made by order of Kunde Rao, the late Gaekwar of Baroda, for the tomb of Mahommed [sic] at Medina. It was composed entirely of inwrought pearls and precious stones, disposed in an arabesque pattern, and is said to have cost a crore (10 million) rupees. Although the richest stones were worked into it, the effect was most harmonious. When spread out in the sun it seemed suffused with a general iridescent pearly bloom, as grateful to the eyes as were the exquisite forms of its arabesques." Birdwood, George M., The Industrial Arts of India, London, 1880, p. 284.
[x] Watt, George, Indian Art at Delhi, 1903, Calcutta, 1903, p. 444.
[xi] St. Clair Weeden, Edward, A Year with the Gaekwar of Baroda, Boston, 1909, pp. 310-312.
[xii] Tottenham, E. L., Highness of Hindustan, London, 1914, pp. 154-155.
[xiii] Bhuj Bushan, op. cit.
[xiv] Grabar, Oleg, The Formation of Islamic Art, New Haven, 1973, pp. 59-60.
[xv] Tottenham, p. 154; St. Clair Weeden, p. 312.
[xvi] Welch, Stuart Cary, India: Art and Culture 1300-1900, New York, 1986, p. 438.
[xvii] Moore, Lucy, Maharanis, New York, 2004, p. 31 who in turn cites Phillip Sargeant, The Ruler of Baroda, London, 1928
[xviii] Welch, Stuart Cary, Imperial Mughal Painting, New York, 1978, p. 99, pl. 30.
[xix] Walker, Daniel, Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era, New York, 1998, p. 26, fig. 12.
[xx] Watt, op. cit.
[xxi] Prior, p. 104.
[xxii] St. Clair Weeden, p. 312.
[xxiii] Maeder, Edward and Carolyn Gluckman, The Pearl Carpet of Baroda, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1985, p. 4.
[xxiv] Welch, Stuart Cary, India: Art and Culture 1300-1900, p. 438.
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