IndiaGBnews reporter Richard Morris takes a closer look at the history of Udaipur’s City Palace Museum, its galleries and exhibitions, and how a conservation master plan is helping to preserve the living heritage of Mewar.
Home to the world’s longest-serving dynasty, the House of Mewar, Udaipur’s City Palace in the western Indian state of Rajasthan is a living heritage destination of international importance. Dubbed ‘India’s Louvre’, the City Palace was founded in 1559 close to the powder blue waters of Lake Pichola, and for centuries it served as the seat of power for Mewar’s rulers. These men were known as Maharanas, kings of kings.
The Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF) was formed in 1969 when the City Palace opened its doors and became a public museum. The foundation was tasked with establishing and managing the new City Palace Museum, with a remit to safeguard and preserve the area’s cultural heritage and the time-honoured traditions of the people of Mewar. Like never before, visitors had the opportunity to gain a unique insight into the vast history and culture of India’s Mewar region.
The 200,000 sq ft museum stands as a magnificent example of Rajput and Mughal architecture. There are expansive chowks (courtyards), grand hallways and peaceful temples. Exquisite panoramic views of the city of Udaipur and of Lake Pichola with its island palaces are easy to find.
Many parts of the City Palace are now open to the public but it also remains the family home of Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, 76th Custodian of the House of Mewar and current Chairman and Managing Trustee of the MMCF. As well as managing the City Palace Museum, this philanthropic body supports a wide range of charitable causes, including medical and educational institutions, sporting programmes, the arts, initiatives designed to promote the role of women in society and historical research programmes.
Amar Mahal Gallery: Splendour of Silver
The City Palace Museum’s Splendour of Silver gallery highlights the important role this precious metal has played over the centuries throughout India. The dedicated silver gallery opened in 2013 and contains a cross-section of artefacts. Standout items include a 20th century mandap (pavilion), used during auspicious wedding ceremonies, and a beautifully ornate silver buggy, crafted in England and shipped to Rajasthan to form part of a royal wedding ceremony.
The gallery also contains everything from utilitarian silver pots used to store and cook food, through to religious vessels, incense holders, items of jewellery and a beautiful Mughal-era rose water sprinkler. Much of the collection dates from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Elephants and horses are the two animals most closely associated with Rajput royalty, and one of the gallery’s most striking exhibits has to be a royal howdah (elephant throne). Made from silver and silver gilt on carved wood, velvet and tinsel, the ornate seat was used for events of royal or religious significance and allowed the ruler of the day to ride atop an elaborately ornamented and richly draped elephant.
Bhagwat Prakash Gallery: Mewar Miniature Painting Exhibition
Regarded as one of the most important schools of Indian miniature painting, Mewar paintings are known in particular for their use of vivid colours and intricate depiction of life in the region. The City Palace Museum holds a unique collection of Mewar court paintings, collected and produced under the patronage of successive Maharanas of Mewar. These works are hugely important cultural and academic resources, providing an insight into the region’s long and complex history, social life and customs, architectural details and natural resources.
The paintings date from the 18th century through to the early 20th century, and cover a vast array of subjects and themes. The oldest, painted between 1715 and 1720, shows Maharana Sangram Singh II at the Gangaur boat procession in Udaipur. Hunting scenes, festivals and important royal occasions are all recorded in astonishing detail.
Oils and a collection of European-style works are displayed throughout the City Palace Museum. S G Thakkar Singh, a prodigious painter of portraits and landscapes, was commissioned by Maharana Fateh Singh (r. 1884 – 1930 AD) to complete 200 pieces in the early 20th century, a selection of which now hang in the Fateh Prakash Palace. These have been meticulously restored and curated by the museum’s professional team in recent years. The fascinating display of paintings of The City Palace and its island palaces and temples are a tribute to S G Thakkar Singh.
Saraswati Vilas Gallery: Symphony of Mewar – A Royal Collection of Musical Instruments
All Maharanas down through the generations have been supporters of music and culture. Rana Kumbha (r. 1433-1468 AD) was a patron of the arts and an accomplished musician who focused on preserving and developing classical music despite living in a violent age. The House of Mewar’s current custodian, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, is also passionate about music and has taken steps to archive and preserve old recordings, and support live performances through various festivals.
The Symphony of Mewar gallery brings together a collection of instruments belonging to the House, some of which are more than 100 years old. Exhibits include various types of sitar – perhaps the best-known Indian classical instrument – and a range of other wooden stringed instruments including a tanpura, esraj, dilruba and a taus.
Fateh Niwas Gallery: Long Exposure: The Camera at Udaipur, 1857 – 1957
The House of Mewar has always embraced new ideas. The camera obscura, a predecessor of the modern day camera, was being used to record life in Udaipur as early as 1818 by British political agent Colonel James Tod. The arrival of photography in India wouldn’t happen for another 22 years.
The City Palace Museum’s photography exhibition gives an overview of the reign of five successive Maharanas of Mewar at Udaipur, drawing on a collection of 30,000 photographs and glass negatives, photomontages and painted photographs, alongside cameras and photographic equipment.
Som Niwas Gallery: Divine Gesture – The magnificence of Mewar spirituality
Down through the centuries, Rajasthan’s artists have been constantly refining the art of carving stone into divine sculptures. The City Palace Museum’s collection is made up of 308 separate pieces, of which 169 are on display, covering four distinct themes – animal motifs and memorial stones, Gods, Goddesses and Surasundaris (celestial beauties).
The gallery presents a fairly representative history of stone sculptures in and around Shree Eklingnath ji temple, situated close to the city of Udaipur. Repeated invasions and the destruction of temple sites in the past were partly behind their removal to the City Palace for safekeeping. The collection reveals an unbroken tradition of stone carving from the 6th to the 20th century, with fine examples from each period.
Gokul Niwas Gallery: The Curtain Raiser – The Mewar Regalia, Textiles and Costumes Exhibition
Offering an insight into Mewar’s rich sartorial history is the museum’s textile gallery, set within the Zenana Mahal (palace for the royal ladies). Its display cases contain a variety of traditional garments, showing how the region’s styles have been adapted by successive generations of the royal family and court. Exhibits include long ceremonial robes, shawls and jackets, along with photographs of items being worn by a number of Maharanas and family members.
Salehkhana Gallery: Arms and Armoury Exhibition
Today the City Palace Museum is one of the world’s most significant heritage sites, with exceptional collections of paintings, silver, sculptures and historical artefacts. However, in centuries past it has been home to powerful princes, men with vast armies at their command. Their weaponry and armour is now on public display in the Salehkhana Gallery. The gallery boasts an assortment of pistols, rifles and ammunition cases, as well as the particularly savage-looking two-pronged sword.
Living Heritage of Mewar
In 2005, a conservation master plan aimed at preserving the living heritage of Udaipur’s City Palace was formed thanks to grant funding from the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles. It marked the latest stage in a journey to transform the City Palace and position it as ‘India’s Louvre’, celebrating iconic architecture, literature, music, art, sculpture, paintings, education and spirituality.
MMCF is working with a number of overseas organisations in an effort to share knowledge and expertise. Last year the foundation co-signed a Memorandum of Understanding with The Cultural Heritage Programme, hosted by the University of Oxford’s e-Research Centre. The MoU provides an opportunity to link Oxford and Udaipur as Smart Heritage Cities, both of which attract large number of domestic and international tourists and face similar challenges with regard to heritage preservation.
A partnership agreement is also in place between the City Palace Museum and the Domaine National de Chambord, based in France’s Loire Valley. Increased co-operation is aimed at boosting tourism and sharing knowledge on heritage conservation.
Restoration in action
Udaipur’s City Palace Museum is keen to take a lead on heritage restoration. In March, MMCF held an interactive workshop aimed at showcasing new and innovative techniques for conserving historical buildings. Industry experts including project engineers, conservation architects and materials conservators all gathered in Udaipur to share knowledge and learn about best practice when dealing with heritage structures.
MMCF’s goal is to showcase international benchmark techniques for conservation, and for the City Palace Museum to serve as an educational resource for the conservation community in India and around the world.
A message from Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar of Udiapur
Chairman and Managing Trustee of the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation
“We recognised after Independence in 1947 we would have to find new ways to support our city and heritage tourism was the route chosen by my father, High late Highness Maharana Bhagwat Singh Mewar. Udaipur is now one of the prime tourism cities in India and the magnet for visitors remains the City Palace Museum.
“We are custodians of our heritage, the living heritage of Mewar. We have always put the interests of the people before ourselves, continuously reinvested our resources into revitalising the museum. By managing living heritage properly, working with Getty and the United Nations, we will encourage visitors and investment from all over the world in Udaipur, helping drive growth and job creation.
City Palace Museum, Udaipur, India: