Jaipur is culturally one of the richest cities in the country and, as an acknowledgement of the city’s vibrant past, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2019. The city itself was established in 1727, when the court of Amber (or Amer) moved to Jaipur, during the reign of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II.
The Maharaja established the new capital with the temple of Govind Dev ji (a form of Krishna) with his own City Palace in the centre, and the rest of the city following a grid pattern. The new city, designed as a commercial centre, invited craftsmen, traders and specialised artists and artisans from across the country. He created a prosperous city, one that continues to be celebrated.
The City Palace served as the administrative seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur till 1949, when the state merged with the Union of India. Located in the central-northeast part of Jaipur, the palace is a vast complex with several courtyards, buildings, pavilions, gardens and temples. A part of the palace was converted into a museum during the time of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II in 1959, and is one of the most popular museums in the country today.
The Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum is spread across multiple courtyards at the City Palace. Each of these courtyards serves a different purpose, hence is distinctly decorated. The palace is still the official residence of the Jaipur royal family, and many rituals and practices (like the Dussehra, Teej, Gangaur and Holi festivals, among others) continue to take place in the precincts of the palace, making it a site of continued history.
Let’s take a quick trip to one of the museum’s most popular galleries — the Sabha Niwas, a diwaan-e-aam, or public hall of audience, where the court or durbar was held. The Sabha Niwas is close to the large entrance gate of the museum, also known as Udai Pol or Gate No 2. While the Maharaja would sit on a gaddi (a throne-like platform) in the centre, his courtiers would stand in a very specific sequence dictated by their rank and importance.
Today, however, you see two thrones and a set of chairs: an influence of the British interaction with the Jaipur court. Even though the second throne was used by the late Gayatri Devi, consort of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II (r. 1922 – 1948), it wasn’t made for a consort of the ruler. It was meant for the English Resident, who was a representative of the Crown, and was therefore seated at par with the ruler! Later, the first President of independent India was seated on the throne alongside the Maharaja, Sawai Man Singh II, who became the first Rajpramukh of Rajasthan.
Once the administrative functions moved to the Town Hall (and later to the Secretariat), and the museum was set up, the Sabha Niwas was used as an art gallery for many years. In its present avatar, the room is set up as a durbar hall with thrones, and the walls have large portraits of the Jaipur Maharajas, made by Sahib Ram, one of the greatest artists of the Jaipur court.
The Jaipur atelier was quite vibrant and rather busy. Artists had access to the collections of the royal household, which collected paintings from the Mughal court, the Deccan, as well as other big and small courts on the Indian subcontinent. The pictorial vocabulary of the Jaipur artists was wide, and they absorbed several stylistic features.
There are many large works of art displayed here, including two remarkable large paintings on cloth depicting Lord Krishna and Radha with their companions, celebrating Holi. Hanging between them is a pair of paintings showing young women in landscapes: one stands under a flowering champa tree with a crane, while the other stands under a mango tree laden with full fruit, with a deer. They represent spring and summer respectively.
There is also a series of portraits of successive Maharajas, from Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II to Maharaja Sawai Jagat Singh, attributed to the master artist Sahib Ram and his studio. These life-size portraits, details of which are modelled in relief, are unique in Indian art. Through carefully chosen iconography, Sahib Ram cleverly highlights key characteristics of his sitters. Sawai Jai Singh II is portrayed more as a scholar than a warrior, with a cane, fine clothes and a gold nimbus. In contrast, Sawai Ishvari Singh, who committed suicide after succumbing to various pressures from the beginning of his reign, is presented in simple attire, with bare legs under his jama, with a modest amount of jewellery, and, significantly, without the nimbus to denote kingship. On the other hand, Madho Singh II is loaded with jewels and arms, indicating wealth and strength, while holding a mala or rosary to suggest he was also pious. The great aesthete Sawai Pratap Singh carries a rose and is resplendent in emeralds.
The later Maharajas are represented by large photographs or by paintings based on photographs. Their clothes and ornaments are traditional but the furniture reveals the gradual Westernisation of tastes.
The display at the museum includes polo trophies marking the sports achievements of the Maharajas, medals and other decorations, and the halls are lined with photographs of the durbar in years gone by.
A day at the MSMS II Museum is an opportunity to explore the courtly arts of Jaipur. The range of architectural styles and decorations, the rich plethora of objects, and even the general mood within the walls of the palace take one back to the days of dedicated royal patronage.
While most visitors arrive in the day time, the museum reopens in the evening for the ‘Museum at Night’ experience, where one can walk through the galleries in peace, along with a complimentary audio guide, watch the Sculpture Lumière Show, which highlights the legacy of the Jaipur rulers, and enjoy the illuminated palace vistas. The palace also houses an award-winning restaurant and bar, a café, a museum shop, an area for artist demonstrations, and even offers an exclusive guided tour of the Chandra Mahal, the area still used as the residence of the royal family.
With inputs from the Curator Aparna Andhare.