Maharaja Surat Singh of Bikaner Confers with Guru Narayanaji

Artist/maker unknown, Indian

Made in Bikaner, Rajasthan, India, Asia

c. 1810-1820

Opaque watercolor, gold, and silver-colored paint on paper

Image: 10 3/4 × 15 3/16 inches (27.3 × 38.6 cm) Sheet: 11 1/2 × 16 inches (29.2 × 40.6 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Alvin O. Bellak Collection, 2004

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Court life was often filled with treachery and violence, as this painting of Maharaja Surat Singh and his guru Narayanaji quietly suggests. The maharaja had good reason to seek spiritual guidance in a hushed, private setting of closed shutters and doors. Surat Singh gained the throne by having his mother poison his brother and later he strangled his dead brother's infant son with his own hands. A European observer at Surat Singh's court reported that the maharaja surrounded himself with priests to make up for his past sins.

Additional information:
  • PublicationIntimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection

    This painting takes up the now-familiar theme of a king and his spiritual counselor, but presents it in a vastly different light. In this case, the ruler of Bikaner, Maharaja Surat Singh (reigned 1787–1828), and a holy man, Narayanaji, meet privately in an intimate palace chamber whose lateral doors and windows remain shuttered. Surat Singh, forgoing a halo but sporting an extravagantly sculpted beard and a high, jeweled turban, joins his hands in veneration of his visitor. Narayanaji, a physically imposing figure even when dressed in the simple robes of a religious teacher, reciprocates with a gesture of discourse. Standing respectfully at a discreet remove are two of Surat Singh’s most important courtiers: a minister (on the right) and the treasurer, Multanmal Khajanchi (on the left), both striking gestures that echo those of the maharaja and the sage.1

    Surat Singh apparently had ample reason to seek spiritual guidance, for he purportedly gained the throne through a series of reprehensible machinations. These began when Surat Singh had his mother fatally poison his sickly brother, Raj Singh, after a reign of less than a fortnight, and culminated eighteen months later when he brought his own regency to an end by strangling Raj Singh’s infant son, the presumptive heir, a murder he carried out personally when he could find no other noble willing to stain his hands with royal blood.2 Surat Singh could not resist the internecine struggles of the region either. For a while, these campaigns went well, and Bikaner extended its local control. Eventually, however, Surat Singh became embroiled in a ruinous alliance against Marwar, a course of action that seriously depleted the state treasury and brought Surat Singh himself to the edge of death for a time. Colonel James Tod, the British agent in Rajasthan between 1818 and 1822, caustically remarked of Surat Singh, that “having cherished the idea that he might compound his past sins by rites and gifts to the priests, he is surrounded by a group of avaricious Brahmans [sic], who are maintained in luxury at the expense of his subjects.”3 Although there is no evidence that Narayanaji was the beneficiary of such calculated favors, other gurus certainly did serve as political brokers. Guru Devnath, who is shown in another Bellak painting (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000-91-1) with Maharaja Man Singh of Jodhpur, was instrumental in reconciling the two foes, and is depicted in conference with Surat Singh in a painting of 1813.4

    The painting itself is a study in formal restraint. The anonymous artist has no interest in the colored frenzy of the corresponding Marwar scene (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000-91-1), or the busy patterns of Bikaneri painting of a century earlier (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-49). Instead, he imparts a sense of solemnity to the scene by installing the four white-robed figures in a rigorously symmetrical arrangement, and by restricting the palette to a series of somber browns. With the palace virtually uniform in color, the crisp architectural drawing assumes a dominant role. Such aesthetic refinement dates the work in the latter half of Surat Singh’s reign, a time of high artistic achievement despite the roiling political climate.5 John Seyller, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Painting from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 180-181.

    1. These identifications are written below the figures, and repeated on the reverse. The minister on the right is designated simply as hazuri (minister). The caption in the lower center, “Dhundhakïsäj,” may be a place name.
    2. James Tod. Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, or the Central and Western Rajput States of India. Edited by William Crooke. 1920; reprint, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971; vol. 2, pp. 1138–39.
    3. Ibid., p. 1142.
    4. Hermann Goetz. The Art and Architecture of Bikaner State. Oxford: Bruno Cassirer for the Government of Bikaner State and the Royal India and Pakistan Society, 1950, pp. 50, 117.
    5. See, for example, ibid., p. 176, fig. 87. For an image of Surat Singh dated 1809, see ibid., p. 173, fig. 82.