When we arrived at the Rao Madho Singh Trust Museum in Kota on that November morning last year, I was taken aback to see the freshly whitewashed exteriors of the Museum building. I mean, why would a red sandstone structure be whitewashed over? The white is so blinding in the mid-morning sunlight that I had to shade my eyes to even look at it.
The Museum is located within the historic Kota City Palace or Kota Garh complex, which consists of many buildings, but none of the other buildings in the palace complex were whitewashed. In fact, the building next to the Museum has been spared the whitewash (except for the domes) and I was able to admire the intricate stone jaalis or lattice-work that covered the entire structure.
The building with the jaalis, however, was not open to the public, making me wonder if the whitewash was for the benefit of the visitors to the Museum, who (according to the website) visit it see its
rich collections of arms and armour, royal regalia and ritual paraphernalia, textiles and objets d’art, and world-famous miniature paintings and wall frescos.
As our group was entering the Museum, there was a moment of panic where I wondered if the interiors of the Museum have been whitewashed over as well, obliterating the wall paintings that I was most keen to see. But then just past the Elephant Gate (see header), I looked up and saw a gloriously painted ceiling (see photograph below) and I knew that all was well.
We spent almost two interesting hours at the Museum going through exhibits in the various galleries, and seeing the painted rooms. The galleries were dusty, poorly lit and not very well laid out. The information that accompanied the exhibits — arms, coins, banners, ganjifa cards, photographs, a vintage ice-cream machine, etc. — could at best be described as sketchy.
But the “world-famous miniature paintings and wall frescos” that filled up room after room over three floors, more than made up for what would otherwise have been a disappointing visit. And how! The sheer variety and brilliance of almost 300 years worth of paintings was a sensory delight and, to be honest, a bit of an overload too. The wall paintings, too, were sans any information whatsoever, but due to my familiarity with the subject of the paintings, I could recognise some of the themes. But there were an equal number of paintings that I couldn’t figure out and remain clueless about them till date. Of course, I have my guesses as to what they could be, but they remain just that. The Museum website gives some background information about the paintings, which I’m presenting in brief here, before taking you along to see the painted rooms of the Kota Garh.
Kota was part of the Bundi kingdom till 1624, when Rao Madho Singh (yes, the same king who gives the Museum its name), the second son of the ruler of Bundi, Rao Ratan Singh, declared independence. The Mughal Emperor Jahangir issued an imperial order validating the same in 1631. Thereafter, the rulers of Kota became allies of “the Imperial powers, be they the Mughal Empire, the Marathas, or the Honourable East India Company”.
Military campaigns took the rulers of Kota to as far north as the Balkh region in Afghanistan, and to the Deccan region in the South. In addition, Madho Singh was also appointed as the Mughal Governor of Burhanpur, which was also known as the gateway to the Deccan. The Kota rulers were often away for years on these campaigns and official duty, returning only occasionally to their kingdom.
An important outcome of these imperial services was that when the rulers returned to Kota after their military campaigns or after serving a particular office, they brought back with them not only new aesthetic sensibilities, but also artists to execute them at the Kota Garh. The result was the painted rooms at the Kota Garh exhibiting a beautiful pot pourri of styles and themes carried out from the mid 17th to the early 20th centuries.
From delicate Persianate style to the more robust Deccani to copies of Ravi Varma paintings to even a set of European style portraits; from mythological themes to hunting scenes to fantastical imagery; from pilgrim maps to cityscapes to mythical landscapes; from delicate colours and brush strokes to bolder use of colours — the painted rooms of the Kota Garh, which are spread over 3 floors, have it all.
There is no information on when each set of paintings and for me it turned into pure guess-work. It was easier to date some paintings more easily than the others. For example, the paintings of Shrinathji are all after 1738, for that is when the Kota rulers became followers of the Vallabha Sampradaya. Similarly, the European portraits are late 19th century after the coming of the British in the area.
Presenting a sampling of the art from the painted rooms of the Kota Garh. Clicking on any of the photographs below will start a slide show; you can use the arrow keys to navigate through the set, and once done, do come back to read the rest of the post.
While I enjoyed seeing the paintings and delighted over them, the visit also left me with many questions and thoughts. To begin with, the lack of information about the painted rooms and the paintings. I know that even some basic information about what the rooms were originally used for and the period the paintings were carried out would have gone a long way appreciating the importance of the paintings. All through the visit, I was keenly aware seeing the paintings without a context. The entire experience would have been so different, if only there was some information.
The big positive is unlike the painted rooms at Jhalawar, these are well maintained and in a far better condition. Well mostly, for there are sights like this !
As I mentioned earlier, the painted rooms are spread over three floors. The ones on the ground floor, adjacent to the museum galleries, are open and a visitor and see them easily. But there are no signs pointing towards the painted rooms on the first and second floors of the Museum. Visitors can visit the Museum and leave without even being aware of what they have missed. Our group would have missed it too, but were lucky thanks to the prior knowledge about the rooms. Mahijit ji, my host in Jhalawar, told me about the painted rooms and stressed that we would have to specifically ask for the rooms to be opened and shown to us. I passed on this information to Jayanti, our group leader, and she requested for the other rooms to be opened as well to which the museum attendants readily complied. I wonder if the rooms would have been opened if we had not asked for it? Somehow, I feel that the answer is “No”.
The silence and lack of information over the painted rooms is deafening and puzzling, particularly, if it is by the very Museum that is its custodian. Maybe, it is meant to discourage too many visitors for fear of damaging the paintings or maybe it could just not be a priority. I really don’t know.
But you will visit the painted rooms of Kota Garh, won’t you? In case you want further convincing, just look at the photo below. That’s me, documenting the paintings frame by frame in one of the painted rooms. What I have shared here is just a fraction, a sampling of the art I saw that day at the Kota City Palace. 🙂
Disclaimer: This part of my Hadoti Trip was done with One Life to Travel, and it was NOT a free, sponsored or discounted trip.
The Hadoti Trip Series: Dear Hadoti | Discovering Jhalawar | The painted rooms of Garh Mahal of Jhalawar | Bhawani Natyashala: The Opera House of Jhalawar | An evening in Jhalrapatan | The Buddhist rock-cut caves at Kolvi | The Gagron Fort at Jhalawar | An impact crater, a temple ruin and some discoveries | A fun evening in Kota | A safari on the Chambal River | The painted rooms of the Kota Garh Palace | The Shiva temples of Bijolia | The temples at Badoli | That and this in Bundi | The painted rooms of Bundi Palace | The stepwells of Bundi |