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“The Pearl Canopy of Baroda


 Indian & Southeast Asian Works of Art

Sotheby's New York

10 A.M., March 24, 2011

 Sale 8727

Pearl Canopy of Baroda

Lot 105, The Pearl Canopy of Baroda, Gugarat, India, pearls, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, gold, 3 feet 11 inches in diameter, circa 1865-1870, and exhibited at “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s

Royal Courts,” at The Victoria and Albert Museum, 2009-2010

Copyright Michele Leight 2011

By Michele Leight

Some rose-cut and over 200 table-cut, diamonds together with thousands of tiny Basra seed pearls – one to three inches in diameter – mingle democratically with English glass beads and embroidery in the breathtakingly beautiful “Pearl Canopy of Baroda,” one of the highlights of Sotheby’s Asian Art Week in New York in March, 2011.

The mind boggles at the artist(s) that imagined it, and the hands that wrought it.

It is also interesting to discover that this gorgeous work of art was commissioned by a sophisticated Hindu prince as a gift to the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed to show his admiration and esteem for Islam.

Lot 105, “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda,” will be auctioned at Sotheby’s Indian and Southeast Asian Art sale on March 24, 2011, that begins at 10 am. The lot has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $5,000,000.  It sold for $2,322,500 including the buyer's premium.

Those that saw the fabulous show in 2009-2010 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington, London, will recognize “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda” from the highly acclaimed exhibition “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts,” where it dazzled thousands of viewers from across the globe. Originally commissioned by the Maharaja of Baroda, Khande Rao Gaekwad, in 1865, (who reigned from 1856-70), “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda” and the equally famous “Pearl Carpet of Baroda,” are the only two surviving pieces of an original ensemble of five.

The Sotheby's catalogue for this lot notes that “The city of Baroda dates back to the 9th century," and was “ruled by different powers, including the Gupta and Mughal Empires. During the Mughal era (1526-1857), ongoing warfare characterized the region as local Marathas, an Indo-Aryan caste of Hindu warriors, resisted the new power and fought for their territories. However, the ever-growing British presence in India became overwhelming, and the Maratha Empire was turned into a principality of The British Raj in 1818. Until 1948 the Gaekwads remained rulers of Baroda, although the de facto power was in British hands. After the formation of present day India, Baroda became part of Gujarat.” 

Baroda was situated in a state that bordered on the Indian Ocean and its people traded with merchants in cities and towns along the Persian Gulf, among them Basra, where famously beautiful pearls were harvested and sold. India’s maharajas were accustomed to wearing the finest gemstones in the world. Numerous photographs, prints and paintings demonstrate that the luminous Basra pearls elegantly held their own alongside the maharaja’s enormous diamonds, rubies and emeralds set in silver and gold. They were the perfect counterpoint to the finest “bling” the world has ever known.

Bling” was serious for reasons that are not immediately obvious to viewers of courtly jewelry today, and no maharaja would even think to be seen in public without it. He would in fact be abdicating his responsibilities to his subjects if he had decided not to wear it. Although it is hard to imagine today, a Maharaja’s subjects viewed him as an earthly deity, their protector, and a good Maharaja had to live up to their expectations. He could not appear before them dressed ordinarily! In addition, he was required to wear specific objects and surround himself with paraphernalia (laid down in ancient Sanskrit texts).

The sumptuous catalogue that accompanied the exhibition “Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts,” (Anna Jackson and Amin Jaffer, V & A Publishing, 2009) includes a chapter entitled “The Power of Public Splendor” (by Joanne Punzo Waghorne) that references the requirements - and their significance - of the maharaja's regalia described meticulously in Jan Gonda’s book, “Ancient Indian Kingship from a Religious Point of View” (Leiden, 1969):   

“The maharaja, seated in state, appears to his people samalamkara, ‘fully ornamented’ or more literally, ‘fully enabled.’ Appearing publicly, samalamkara, remained a fundamental duty of the king to ensure in some way the health and well-being of his subjects and his realm. In this context the lavish ornamentation of the maharajas of India becomes a religious necessity, not a frivolous extravagance.”

By the time the young maharaja who commissioned this artwork ascended the throne, the sun had set on the famous Mughal Empire that had reached its peak in the reign of Emperor Shah Jehan, who built one of the most famous buildings in the world – the Taj Mahal - as a tomb in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. The emperor and his empress are buried beside each other in tombs in the Taj Mahal today. It is one of the greatest love stories of all time. Constructing the Taj Mahal almost bankrupted him.

Emperors and maharajas opened their purses – or rather their caskets over-flowing with gemstones and gold - when it came to mausoleums and tombs for themselves and their families. In commissioning the “Pearl Carpet of Baroda ” as a gift for the most beloved prophet of Islam - of which “The Pearl Canopy” is an integral part - the Hindu maharaja Khande Rao was equally lavish. Fortuitously, the catalogue entry for the lot notes, he also had access to “some of the most talented artists who had previously worked for the Mughal court.”

It was also fortunate for those visionary artists, and for us, the entry added that “the new Maharaja was known for his love of display and magnificence, and generous patronage of the arts and architecture. He had a special fondness for jewels and acquired some of the most magnificent gemstones known to the world, such as the 128- carat 'Star of the South' diamond.”                

In March 2009, “The Pearl Carpet of Baroda” sold at Sotheby’s Doha (Quatar), (Lot 401), for  $5,000,000, making it the most expensive carpet in the world. Fortunately for us all, “The Pearl Carpet of Baroda” can be viewed in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. The buyer wished to remain anonymous.              .

What is wonderful about both works of art is that although they “go” together and share the same “ingredients” – if one can call diamonds and pearls ingredients –  and the design and motifs are not repetitious. They borrow from each other freely, but are not “carbon copies” of the other, a testimony to the originality of these one-of-a-kind works of art that were executed by some of the finest artisans and artists that have ever lived. Because they are not “matched sets” it also makes them so much fun to explore!

 Detail of the Pearl Canopy of Baroda

Detail of the canopy

The magical properties inherent in artifacts like “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda” and “The Pearl Carpet of Baroda” have fired the imagination for centuries, inspiring famous poems, scintillating stories – about magical flying carpets - and films. They have also influenced successive generations of Southeast Asian and international artists, who see past their obvious “bling,” to their deeper meaning and significance.

Jewel encrusted surfaces evoke exquisite works of devotion that have been created since the beginning of time in all religions and cultures. Jeweled and embroidered vestments, altar covers, drinking vessels, and notably the sumptuous covers of holy books of all faiths are lavished with precious materials and exquisite workmanship. Their objective was to inspire awe.

The catalogue states that there are "approximately 950,000 pearls and beads" in the canopy and that in its estimation "the number of pearls employed in the design is therefore at least 500,000 to 650,000," adding that "the rosettes are circled by small natural 'Basra' pearls of slightly larger size, measuring approximately 3-4 mm."  It added that the motifs are further enhanced with approximately 700 foil backed rubies, emeralds and sapphires set in gold."

The canopy is three feet 11 inches in diameter.

When fine artists or craft-persons of this caliber are let loose to indulge their vision - and money is no object - the creative sky is the limit. The “abstract-ness” of seemingly decorative objects like The Baroda Carpet and Canopy subverts their practical purpose and has enormous appeal. Devoid of human or story-telling imagery, depictions of flowers, and gorgeous abstract geometric motifs resonate universally across all cultures.

Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal, photograph by Michele Leight

This “abstract” and floral imagery is visible in every nook and cranny of the Taj Mahal, arguably the pinnacle of Islamic art and architecture. Emperor Shah Jehan desired a tomb for his beloved that everyone would love and admire, not just people of a particular faith, nation or background. Maharaja Gaekward of Baroda wanted to give a gift that would inspire similar awe and admiration for Islam.

Sotheby’s catalogue sheds light on “The Pearl Canopy” and the original ensemble:

“The suite was comprised of four rectangular carpets, one being the aforementioned sold ‘Pearl Carpet,’ and one circular, the lot offered here. This masterpiece was reputedly intended by the Maharaja as a gift to the tomb of the prophet Mohammed at Medina showing his admiration and esteem for Islam. For over 100 years the Pearl Canopy of Baroda has been hidden from public view. The 1903 Delhi showcase of Indian Art is the last time the canopy was on view until its sudden appearance last year in the exhibition ‘Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts at The Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The canopy was mentioned and a rectangular carpet was included in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1913, and the 1985 exhibition “India” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.”

However, life is not always smooth sailing - even for a powerful Maharaja:

“Weeden also notes that the Maharaja died before the gift could be sent to Medina and his successors did not feel compelled to carry out his wishes. Maharaja Kande Rao Gaekwad died in 1870 and it appears the carpet had been completed by then. He died of natural causes, having survived an attempt on his life made by his brother Mulhar Rao, who had tried to kill him with a concoction of crushed diamonds.” (“A Year With the Gaekwar of Baroda,” by Edward St. Clair Weeden, Boston 1909, pp 310-312, referenced in Sotheby’s catalogue for this sale)

This was especially cruel, given that Maharaja Khande Rao Gaekwad was so passionate about jewels. The “Star of the South,” diamond, the Pearl Carpet and the Pearl Canopy “remained in the Gaekwad family collection, and were among the valued pieces in her personal collection which Maharani Sita Devi, wife of the then Maharaja, Pratapsingh Rao Gaekwad, brought with her when she moved to Monaco in 1946,” the catalogue noted. 

There is a moving photograph, circa 1948, by Henri Cartier Bresson in the catalogue of the beautiful Maharani wearing the fabled diamond. It also has a wonderful old sepia map of India and illustrations from the period, including a mid-19th century painting depicting “Khande Rao Gaekwad, Maharaja of Baroda, India,” 1956-70, from the Granger Collection, New York, in which he is wearing a fantastic diamond necklace, flanked by elegantly turbaned attendants holding ornate flywhisks.

A work of art like this is rarely seen today, except at exhibitions – perhaps twice in a lifetime – and if one is lucky, at elite auction houses before they disappear into private collections.

Elegantly displayed in Sotheby’s galleries, and illustrated here, “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda” resembled an extra-terrestrial flying object – a magic carpet - that had landed momentarily in our world before speeding off again into the cosmos, to compete with the stars. Imagine the spectacle if a Maharaja was seated beneath it wearing diamonds, rubies and emeralds the size of dove’s eggs, his neck festooned with fabulous Basra pearls, his turban decorated with a gem encrusted sarpech of unimaginable beauty. Even we might think he had dropped straight from heaven.

How “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda was to be “deployed” is a matter of speculation, although it is believed there were four poles attached to it. In those days it was customary to send a magnificent gift in a “procession” and in some cases the maharaja would accompany the gift, trailing elephants, camels and hundreds of courtiers and attendants. With a maharaja to protect and many fine jewels and valuables in tow, soldiers and guards had to accompany the procession. It was a spectacle, the likes of which we shall likely never see again, but we get a hint of it from “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda.”

We will never know how the maharaja intended to transport his precious gift to the tomb of the Prophet whose religion he admired because he died before his gift could be sent to Medina. He may have intended to take his precious gift personally, in full royal regalia, accompanied by his dazzling entourage. What a wonderful commission this must have been for artists to undertake - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strut their creative stuff:

“'The Pearl Canopy of Baroda’ is an exemplar of the Indian love of these pearls, its scintillating surface composed of countless ‘Basra Pearls. To execute such a unique and precious object Khande Rao chose the best raw materials to match the unparalleled craftsmanship of artists he commissioned to execute this extraordinary work of art. Completely covering the surface with the most valued type of pearls, a meticulous work that took years to complete, clearly indicates that the Maharaja of Baroda only accepted the very best in design, craftsmanship and material," according to the catalogue.

Perhaps someone will wave a magic wand so that “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda” also finds a home in a museum. Then we can take our children to see it, so they can imagine riding on magic carpets, and learn that people of different faiths can be respectful of each other. 

Works of art of this quality are global art treasures. “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda” is also a jewel in the crown of arts patronage. Hopefully that vitally important tradition will continue to nourish the arts.

Mary-Jo Otsea, Sotheby’s Worldwide Head, Carpets - offered valuable insights on this important work of art and said it would be wonderful if “The Pearl Carpet of Baroda” and “The Pearl Canopy of Baroda” were to be re-united some day.

Mary-Jo Otsea, head of carpets, worldwide at Sotheby's

Mary-Jo Otsea, worldwide head of carpets at Sotheby's, next to the Pearl of Baroda Canopy, photography by Michele Leight 

In a perfect world, that would be possible.

(See The City Review article, “Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals.”)


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