Albert Hall Jaipur: a site for 19th century colonial and cultural diplomacy

Historian and Curator, Aparna Andhare explores the Albert Hall Museum (set up in the late 19th century) in Jaipur, Rajasthan, as an example of politics and diplomacy, coming together into one structure and institution.

We tend to think of museums as secular repositories of history, evidence, knowledge, objects, narratives and much more. Looking closely, we find museums are not innocent spaces; they are political and have always been. Let’s explore the Albert Hall Museum (set up in the late 19th century) in Jaipur, Rajasthan, as an example of politics and diplomacy, coming together into one structure and institution.

The Albert Hall Museum in Jaipur : between history and modernity

Albert Hall’s location in the Ram Niwas Baug literally and figuratively places the building in lineage with Jaipur’s most significant monuments.

It is on one end of a very visible and public axis of divinity and kingship. At the other end of this axis, lies the temple of Govind Dev Ji, the chief deity of Jaipur.

It is a straight line from the temple, passing through the Chandra Mahal (the Maharaja’s residence in the City Palace), the ceremonial gateway of Tripolia, and down an important avenue, the Chauda Rasta.

Exiting out of the gate punctured into the parkota (the defence wall built around the city imaginatively called “New Gate”), and cutting across the large public gardens (the Ram Niwas Bagh), you reach Albert Hall.

In a sense, the Albert Hall Museum is on the threshold between historical precincts of Jaipur, and its modern expansion. It straddles both worlds and occupies the past as well as the future within its walls.

Today, it is one of the first “heritage” buildings a visitor encounters when arriving from the airport. It is an appropriate introduction to the treasures of Jaipur— showcasing architecture, urban planning, textiles, paintings, and the exceptional craftsmanship.

Creation of Albert Hall

On Feb 06, 1876, the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (later Edward VII) laid the foundation stone of the Albert Hall Museum during his grand tour of India. The plan then was to build a cultural space for the public. In his essay on the Jaipur Exhibition of 1883, Giles Tillotson helpfully talks about the creation of the Albert Hall – a building named even before its purpose was determined.1

It also made a link with the Albert Hall in London, named after a different Albert, Victoria’s consort and Albert Edward’s father.

The construction of the Albert Hall reached its completion under the reign of Sawai Madho Singh II. Professor Sugata Ray, when discussing the politics of the Albert Hall Museum, argues that Madho Singh II attempted to revive 16th century sophistication and cosmopolitanism of Akbar’s court, through the display at Albert Hall.2

Razmnama mural at Albert-Hall Jaipur : The marriage choice ceremony (Swayamvara). Painter of original, Tulsi, 1590 CE. Modern Copyists, Sheobaksh, Blamukund, 1887 CE

On its completion in 1880, Madho Singh II appointed Thomas H. Hendley, as the curator of the Museum. His mandate was to:

“complete local education by providing, as far as possible, a perfect collection of objects…from the State of Jeypore [Jaipur] or from the province of Rajputana.”

With Hendley in charge of the gallery, the museum had display cases imported from the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum). Hendley added instructive labels with details of the art and objects, date, maker, size, and provenance information to accompany the exhibits. 

The catalogue of the Jaipur Exhibition of 1883

The success of the Great Exhibitions in Europe prompted a wave of exhibitions and setting up of museums in various parts of India. The Jeypore Exhibitions, with Hendley in charge, was among the first to be held in India. 

In 1883, Hendley wrote an extensively illustrated 4-volume catalogue entitled the ‘Memorials of the Jeypore Exhibition’. We refer to it even today!

In this publication, Hendley reproduced a few folios from the celebrated Razmnama*, Akbar’s illustrated and translated copy of the Mahabharata. (The manuscript, unfortunately, has been in a sealed store for over 30 years, owing to a court case).

This makes the catalogue, with its reproductions of the manuscript, an important source for the Razmnama-manuscript.

*Razmnama (the Mahabharata in Persian)

The Razmnama has significant stories of kingship, and draws the Kachchwahas (the clan of the Jaipur rulers) as divine and ideal kings. They are not only descendants of the sun, but also the obvious heirs of the great Mughal empire.

The Maharaja then gifted the catalogue to museums and libraries around the world.

Gifting this four-volumed exhibition catalogue helped Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II create a reputation of himself as an aesthete and modern ruler. Sawai Madho Singh thus used publications and the modern public space— the museum— as a canvas for his own brand of kingship, and through gifts ensured that the world took notice.

Gifts for diplomacy and politics

Gift exchanges had always been an important aspect of court culture and diplomatic exchanges. They were indicative of power hierarchies and were used to ask for favours and bestow honour. In medieval and early modern courts, especially in the Indian subcontinent, gifts were publicly presented as nazar (offering made to a sovereign or superior). These were presented in court but could be privately consumed.

By the 19th century, with the transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown, the performance of gift-giving changed. Gifts were presented in private with an expectation of a public display.

Exhibited throughout Europe : Gifts received by Prince Albert Edward during his India-tour (1876)

Maharaja Madho Singh II’s gift diplomacy

Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh’s gifts to the English crown were impressive and extravagant, in keeping with his status and ambitions.

Take a look at this diamond-studded sword & scabbard he gifted.

He acquired one of the world’s largest oil paintings on canvas, ‘Jaipur Procession’ by the Russian artist’s Vasily Vereshchagin, painted in 1876.

The Jaipur Procession / Vasily Vereschagin, 1879. The painting shows Prince Albert Edward with the Jaipur Maharaja, Ram Singh, followed by a large retinue.

He gifted this canvas to the Victoria Memorial Hall in Calcutta, perhaps on Lord Curzon’s request in 1906.

Using such gifts, Madho Singh II cemented relationships with the British Crown.


Changing times demanded modifications to court culture. In order to negotiate with the colonial powers, Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II used traditions of gift-giving, alongside building monuments and institutions to strengthen his influence and position. Colonisers have left, and democracy has replaced the rule of kings. Museums have survived, and continue to be at the heart of contemporary cultural diplomacy.

The next time you are at any museum, we hope you’ll ponder over the circumstances that led to its foundations. Consider the origins of its collections, stop to look at catalogues, and see the stories beyond pithy labels! 


Notes

  1. Tillotson, Giles. “The Jaipur Exhibition of 1883.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 14, no. 2 (2004): 111–26. doi:10.1017/S1356186304003700. ↩︎
  2. Ray, Sugata. “Colonial Frames, “Native” Claims: The Jaipur Economic and Industrial Museum.” The Art Bulletin 96, no. 2 (2014): 196-212. Accessed April 4, 2021. doi:10.2307/43188872. ↩︎
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Aparna Andhare
Aparna Andhare
Aparna Andhare is an independent art historian, curator and writer currently based in Pune. She spent a few years in Jaipur, as a curator at the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, City Palace Jaipur. Specialising in art and architecture of early modern India, she has two master's degrees: Art in the Global Middle Ages (MSc, University of Edinburgh, Sep 2017), and Arts and Aesthetics (MA, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, May 2012).

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