The V&A's big autumn show, to go by its full title, explores "the splendour of India's Royal Courts", and describes itself as being the first to cover the period between the Mughals and the arrival of the English — a questionable claim, given that the Indian court period was covered in the just-closed Gardens and Cosmos show, part of the British Museum's Indian Summer. Yet what should be, as curator Anna Jackson asserts, a sober and comprehensive examination of a lesser-explored period gets off to a sticky start with the bewildering inclusion in the first gallery of a giant elephant.
The polygonal pachyderm, accompanied by a similarly angular horse, demonstrate the fineries of a royal procession, with the elephant and its retinue adorned with gold and other material trappings. Yet the effect of a procession is conveyed much better by the artworks that surround the room. Why the V&A chose to insult the intelligence with these life-sized yet hopelessly inadequate quadrupeds is a mystery — perhaps they hope to entice the audience from over the road at the National History Museum.
This is one of the show's bigger missteps; another is piping in music into the gallery — the piece may have been composed specially for the exhibition, but it sounds like something you'd expect to hear at a local Indian restaurant. Yet it's difficult to fault the sheer range of material the V&A have collected here (though Jonathan Jones tries): a trove of incredible treasures is on display, with over 250 objects spanning jewels and paintings stretching back hundreds of years, through to an exquisitely maintained Rolls Royce used to ferry the princes around during the latter days of the Raj.
This is a generally illuminative and interesting romp through a region caught on the cusp of history — a subcontinent temporarily stripped of the heft and bloodshed it carried under the Mughals and would again do so once the British were thrown off and Partition had done its worst. Archive film footage shows a fascinating insight into what was often a life of indolence for the Maharas, all pomp and circumstance yet denuded of real power and forced to kowtow to the Anglo-Saxon overseers: a pair of photographs show the Maharaja Saya jirao Gaekwad III of Bardoa in both traditional Indian dress and, in contrast, the buttoned-up English period clothing he wore on a trip to Parliament. In exploring India's frogmarch toward what Europeans considered modernity, this show is a success.