Maharao Ram Singh II of Kota Riding His Horse on the Palace Roof

Artist/maker unknown, India

Geography:
Made in Kota, Rajasthan, India, Asia

Date:
1851

Medium:
Opaque watercolor and gold on paper

Dimensions:
20 3/4 x 27 15/16 inches (52.7 x 71.0 cm)

Curatorial Department:
South Asian Art

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:
2004-149-68

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

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Label:
The curious event shown in this painting actually occurred at the Kota Palace in 1850. Maharao Ram Singh II invited his courtiers to dress in pink and watch him ride his horse on the palace roof. The man in black is the local British political agent who attended the event. Ram Singh II was clearly quite eccentric and probably just as arrogant, but he was also, arguably, the last great patron of court painting in India.

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

    A frontal elevation of the Kota palace occupies the greater portion of this large picture, squeezing its foreground and background into a single plane.1 The building is eerily empty except for an assembly of figures on its highest roof. In this incongruous setting, the invited courtiers and other guests (including Mr. Morrison, the local British political agent, who is dressed in black) have gathered to watch Ram Singh II (see also Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-67, 2003-43-3) ride a horse on the top of his palace. Only the vast height of the supporting building suggests the type of challenge that made the event worth staging.

    The episode depicted here is not an escapist fantasy: it actually took place, as a commemorative tablet in the Kota palace proves beyond doubt.2 The year was 1850, when Ram Singh II rode a horse that had been guided to the roof by means of a specially constructed wooden scaffolding.3 Mr. Morrison and a number of the most important nobles and courtiers were in attendance. Later in the evening the maharao hosted a special darbar (court assembly). All of the decorations were pink, and the guests were asked to wear clothing and turbans of the same color.4 The darbar “was followed by rounds of jolly festivities enlivened with drinks and a sumptuous feast.”5

    Ram Singh II had a practical joker’s sense of humor, which he exercised at will. Other paintings of the period depict him riding an elephant on the roof of the palace, or shooting a tiger while making love. One might easily assign these pictures to a realm of fantasy or myth, but the present, equally outlandish painting depicts a historically verifiable ocurrence. This basis in fact suggests that daily life in the Kota palace was far more interesting than anyone might have guessed.

    As Ram Singh II was an obsessive memorialist, court artists accompanied him everywhere to record the public and private events that filled his day. The results are extremely wide-ranging, including paintings of weddings, darbars, and distant travel; religious and secular celebrations; polo matches and boating parties; hunting expeditions and sex. But the focus and attention never vary much: there are very few paintings in which Ram Singh II does not appear as the central character and raison d’être.

    The maharao was wildly eccentric, and perhaps monstrously self-absorbed. But his interest in the everyday world—in the reflected backdrop of his personal glory—encouraged court painters to record landscape, architecture, and genre details with uncommon fidelity. These elements fill the highly detailed backgrounds of paintings of his period, giving them a physical immediacy and a moody intensity that the foreground figures often lack. There are at least two other versions of this same painting: one is still mounted on a wall in the Bada Mahal section of the Kota palace;6 the other was sold at auction in 1980.7 Terence McInernery, from Intimate Worlds: Indian Paintings from the Alvin O. Bellak Collection (2001), pp. 178-179.

    1. A related architectural format was used to notable effect by the painter Nainsukh; see Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004-149-71 and B. N. Goswamy. Nainsukh of Guler: A Great Indian Painter from a Small Hill-State. Supplement 41 of Artibus Asiae. Zurich: Museum Rietberg, 1997, pp. 138–45, nos. 45–48.
    2. M. K. Brijraj Singh. The Kingdom That Was Kotah: Paintings from Kotah. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1985, p. 20 n. 90.
    3. A Rajasthani inscription includes the date and the name of the artist: “Shri Hari/folio showing His Highness . . . Samvat 1908 [A.S. 1851], seventh day of the bright half of Asardh [June-July]. Picture by the painter Namaram./Rs. 50.”
    4. For a painting depicting this all-pink darbar, now in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum, Hyderabad (76.157), see Vishakha N. Desai et al. Life at Court: Art for India’s Rulers, Sixteenth–Nineteenth Centuries. Exh. cat. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1985, p. 121, no. 99.
    5. M. K. Brijraj Singh. The Kingdom That Was Kotah: Paintings from Kotah. New Delhi: Lalit Kala Akademi, 1985, p. 20 n. 90.
    6. Ibid., fig. 44.
    7. Christie’s, London, October 16, 1980, lot 167.