"Maharaja" at the Asian Art Museum and "The Matter Within" at YBCA focus on India's past and present
Similarly, Rina Banerjee's Frankensteinian sculptures of colonial-era antiquities and costly animal remnants, although rich with historical allusion, simply look busy compared to Siddartha Karawall's giant send-up of a horse and rider statue Hangover Man, made from wax-covered T-shirts that had originally been donated to poor communities in India by an American charity but got re-routed to the open market. The rider in question is the former Maharaja after whom Karwall's art school was named, who now appears as a Don Quixote-like wraith representative of the gulf between Western goodwill and the Indian "ground truth" of need and impoverishment it is supposedly addressing.
A different sort of disconnect haunts the Asian Art Museum's "Maharaja: The Splendor of India's Royal Courts," the other major exhibit in town currently devoted to India. Maharaja means "great king" or "high king" in Sanskrit, a status expressed in the breathtaking level of sumptuousness and luxury of the material items through which Indian rulers displayed their power.
Light on historical context and heavy on the baubles, Maharaja offers up a seemingly endless parade of such items: extravagantly embroidered textiles, magnificent ceremonial accouterments, and enough serious bling to outshine the borrowed sparkles of any contemporary red carpet. The effect is strangely flattening. Monarchy is the golden goose that produces marvelous things rather than a larger institution, the spoils of which only tell one part of a more complex and usually bloody story.
Thus, what Maharaja leaves largely unaddressed are questions of power and history, as well as the politics of display. For example, what was the cost in human labor (and perhaps lives) to spin and weave the silk necessary to make the stunning 18th Century bridal gown in the second gallery? Or to mine the diamonds, rubies, and emeralds that emblazon so many of the items displayed?
The fact that the majority of the artifacts come from London's Victoria and Albert Museum –an official co-presenter of the exhibit— speaks more to the legacy of British colonial rule than the brief gloss the Raj and its aftermath receive in the show's third gallery, which crams in most of Maharaja's history lessons. And judging from the case of various Cartier commissions from the 1920s and '30s, and the gorgeous modern furniture commissioned by Yeshwant Rao Holkar II (a jazz age jetsetter and friend of Man Ray's who is the exhibit's breakout star), India's deposed royals did pretty well for themselves, even as the times changed around them.
But then again, that the already powerful would continue being high rollers is not really news. As Mel Brooks pointed out long ago, it's good to be the king.
THE MATTER WITHIN: NEW CONTEMPORARY OF INDIA
Through January 15
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF.
MAHARAJA: THE SPLENDOR OF INDIA'S ROYAL COURTS
Through April 8
Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin, SF.