The exhibition “Treasures of a Desert Kingdom: The Royal Arts of Jodhpur, India” is in Toronto for the summer. Installed at the Royal Ontario Museum, it explores the rich legacy of the Maharajas of Marwar-Jodhpur, as seen in their patronage of the arts, devotion to their gods, and the central role of women as members of the court.
Any historical discussion of artefacts considers TIME – asrevealed by stages of material technique, eras of iconographic markers, andphases of the semiotics of kingship. For this exotic collection presented out-of-placein Toronto, however, the narrative starts with an indication of PLACE in theformer princely state of Jodhpur (now the second largest city of the Indianstate of Rajasthan). A video projection shows us the Mehrangarh citadel, the‘Fort of the Sun’, with its monumental sun-baked walls emerging from the surroundingdesert. By contrast, it is cool and dark in the ROM’s basement.
While other reviews of this exhibition have discussed the objects on display in terms of time, I was struck by their residue of place. It might be easy to overlook the enduring impact of harsh sunlight and searing heat on object and spatial design. Nevertheless, many of the treasures on view provide insight into this environmental context on an architectural scale. The exhibition contains many objects that reflect the light, filter the light, and provide shelter from the light. A closer look reveals a variety of object and spatial design responses to relentless and suffuse natural daylighting.
Some objects have gilded, jeweled and mirrored surfaces to reflect the light in a dazzling way that attracts attention, especially when both the object and viewer are mobile. A magnificent swinging cradle/throne for the Hindu god Krishna is inlaid with mirrors. Mahadol, the Grand Palanquin, is highlighted at the corners with small mirrors. Whether reserved for jubilant private devotion on ceremonial days, or paraded with royal prestige during public ceremonies, the enhanced reflective surfaces of these objects convey cultural value by refracting, multiplying, and concentrating the sunlight.
Other objects have dull surfaces that have been carved and pierced with intricate linear patterns to filter the strong sunlight. There are two stone ‘Jali’ screens exhibited, and they share this explanatory label: “A jali is a stone screen, carved of red sandstone or marble. It is used widely in Indian architecture to regulate sunlight and allow the free flow of air. The facades of Mehrangarh Fort’s ‘zenana’ [women’s quarters] feature hundreds of delicate geometric and floral designs. Each is drawn from a repertoire of patterns still used by artisans today.” The ornamental patterns on these vertical architectural elements are highlighted in the museum display. A descriptive audio tour available on the ROM’s website also mentions the screens’ built-in privacy feature. The jali’s effect in its original architectural context – to transmit delightful, lacy traces of light into a cool, shaded interior – is suggested only accidentally by the surrounding cast shadows.
Perhaps the most impressive reminder of absent sunlight are various monumental canopied shelters used by the maharaja and his court either at home or on the move. The largest and most famous is the ‘Lal Dera’ tent – clearly intended for ceremony rather than personal retreat. Reaching 4 m high, this removable shelter is erected with lightweight poles supporting embroidered velvet – some textile panels are very old; others are reproductions. Surrounded at its perimeter on three sides by seven arched openings, the raised Dias at the core of the tent enjoys full overhead protection combined with important cross-ventilation for cool breezes. A blind wall at the back provides windbreak form sand storms as well as a suitable backdrop for courtly rituals enacted in the desert camp. In addition to the tent’s colour (red) being typically reserved for the Mughal Emperor, the complexity of the tent’s design and the skilled team required to set it up would have made it clear to early guests that the Maharaja of Jodhpur had access to Imperial workshops in Ahmedabad in the neighbouring Gurjarat region. The tent bears traces of place by its impressive presence and creates place locally by its command of shade.
Towards the rear of the exhibition layout, a rest spot for museumvisitors is covered by a massive fabric canopy offering the weary travellersome hospitable shade. The red, gold and green tented interior evokes a verdantoutdoor landscape unlike the imagined harsh dry desert sand. Coloured textilesabsorb rather than reflect the light; densely-patterned fabric adds depth andmovement to still shadow.
While natural daylighting can be clarifying and mood enhancing in jurisdictions that don’t get enough of it, we may forget that in other places the sun’s intense presence commands response. In many cultures, the sun has been a symbol of divine kingship. Benevolent and sustaining, the desert sun is a powerful natural force to be exploited, controlled, and respected. In the ROM’s darkened basement, these objects from Jodhpur remind us of sunlight’s role in localised design culture and, by extension, of the power of place to shape the designed and built environment.