I remember the first time I saw them. It was a grey November day in 2012. The Indian silver expert Wynyard Wilkinson accompanied me to an art storage facility in London on the south bank of the Thames. We entered the room, the lights clicked on, and there they were — a pair of glistening silver thrones. After the viewing, we discussed their beautiful ornamentation and high quality of craftsmanship. Then, Wynyard asked if I saw their inscriptions. I responded, yes, “Raj Dungarpur san 1911.” We both looked up at each other and nearly shouted in unison, “the Delhi Durbar of 1911.” We knew in that instant that these thrones and their regalia were exceptionally important, not only as symbols of Indian kingship or as examples of syncretic Indo-European design, but as witnesses to one of the most significant moments in British and modern Indian history.
The history and restoration of these thrones are the focus of Silver Splendor: Conserving the Silver Thrones of Dungarpur, India, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. These impressive objects have lived multiple lives before arriving in Kansas City. In this article, I will share where and when they came from.
Locating the Dungarpur Thrones
The story of the silver thrones begins in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. The town of Dungarpur lies about two hours south of the city of Udaipur, nestled around a large lake in the Aravalli Hills. Dungarpur has served as the capital of a Rajput kingdom of the same name since the 14th century. The Dungarpur maharawal (king) Udai Singh II (1838-1898) began construction of a new palace in 1883. Completed around 1910, Udai Bilas Palace required new thrones for use in royal audiences and ceremonies. (Fig. 2)
These silver thrones are created in hybrid style, combining the form of a European chair with decoration derived from Hindu iconography and Indian floral designs. These ornate chairs were put to use in court meetings between the king and high-ranking royals and British officials, which were now commonly held in similar facing chairs. (Fig. 3)
Dated to 1911, creation of the Dungarpur thrones coincides with one of the most important dates in Indian and British Colonial history, the crowning of King George V and his second coronation as King-Emperor of India at the Delhi Durbar in December of 1911. These silver thrones would have been ready in time to host traveling dignitaries at the palace in Dungarpur.
Power through Ornament
The decoration and luxurious materials of the Dungarpur thrones convey the majesty and authority of their royal patrons. The viewer’s eyes are immediately met by the alert gaze of a group of large, sculpted, animated silver lions — regal symbols in India — that serve as armrests and legs of the chairs and their footstools. Looking to the throne backs, each throne displays a standing figure of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god and one of the symbols of the Dungarpur kingdom, rendered in relief and framed in a central medallion. (Fig. 4) A disk containing the face of the sun god Surya rests at the top of the throne backs, indicating that the Dungarpur kings were a solar lineage, descending from the sun.
The story of the Dungarpur thrones does not end in India. In 1969, the last maharawal Lakshman Singh (1908-1989), brought the thrones to Europe. They were acquired by a German collector and were lent to a museum in Heidelberg for many years. The Nelson-Atkins purchased the thrones and their regalia in 2013. Since the objects’ arrival in Kansas City, Kate Garland, Senior Objects Conservator, Paul Benson, Objects Conservator (retired) and Stephanie Spence, Objects Conservation Fellow, have devoted much effort to bringing the objects back close to their original condition. These efforts include polishing the silver, covering the original upholstery with new velvet and replicating the ornate umbrella that would have been held or installed above the seated ruler. The umbrella project has spanned over 12 months and three continents as our museum conservators worked with multiple partners, including the Paris-based textile firm Lesage Interieurs and their team of master embroiderers based in Chennai, India.
All events, classes, workshops and tours at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art are canceled, at least through mid June. This includes the museum’s Passport to India festival and the largest fundraiser for the museum, ShuttleCork. It also includes the Juneteenth festival. Check the museum’s online calendar for updates and details.
–Kimberly Masteller, Jeanne McCray Beals Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art