Costumes of India re-create the raj way of life

GETTING and spending came naturally to the princely rulers of India. The maharajas had it and they knew how to flaunt it. Their style of consumption was ultra-conspicuous -- on a grandiose scale that has probably never been surpassed before or since. Samplings of this unbounded luxury are assembled for ``Costumes of Royal India'' (at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened last Friday and runs through next Aug. 31). The exhibition is the 14th in an annual series of crowd-pleasing spectaculars organized by Diana Vreeland, special consultant to the museum's Costume Institute. Her new show is a scintillating adjunct to the Met's larger India! exhibition of fine arts, which is also on view now. (Both are part of the nationwide Festiv al of India.)

``Costumes'' re-creates the raj way of life in the 19th and early 20th century. Ablaze with shimmering textiles, precious stones, and metals, it turns back the clock to a time when begums (Muslim princesses) wore saris spun of pure gold and rode in carriages made of silver, accompanied by battalions of lancers and troops of flag-carriers.

The show's centerpiece is a life-size elephant, painted with flowers and bearing sumptuous 19th-century silver trappings and a silver-and-gold howdah (a canopied seat for riding on the elephant's back). The fixings come from the private collection of the Maharajah of Jaipur and date to the 19th century. (For regal transport later, in the 1920s, a specially built motorcar would have a carved ivory steering wheel.)

Members of the former ruling families of various princely states have lent splendid furniture and paintings for the exhibition, as well as apparel and jewelry. Lavishly dressed figures of a man and a woman lounge about a Gujarat bed-swing encrusted with gold and silver. It displays a throne cover and cushions of gold, pink, and green silk brocade from Jodhpur. Huge kettledrums, peacock feather fans, animal-headed silver dhokas (scepters), and other symbols of sovereignty heighten the cour tly atmosphere. There's evidence that a silver spoon was insufficient as a start in life. Dressed in fine cotton from Lucknow, the baby nawab or maharani was rocked (as one display shows) in a cradle of gilded wood embellished with silver and mirrors.

A large vitrine is filled with turbans of various sorts. According to ``A Second Paradise, Indian Courtly Life 1590-1947,'' the illustrated book written by Naveen Patnaik and edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in correlation with the exhibition, turbans were often more than 20 feet long. Styles of winding varied, depending on region, prestige, and power. For the traveling nobleman, the turban was more than a head covering, serving as protection from sun by day, as a pillow at night, even as a rope for

lowering a water vessel into a well.

Another vitrine holds a collection of exquisite shoes. Some are brocaded or gem-studded mules with turned-up toes; others incised solid silver clogs. A gift of beautiful slippers was not always good news. When a great noble presented a pair to his lady love, she knew he had tired of her if the shoes were pointed in the direction of the gate.

As to the rest of the raj apparel, there is an abundance of saris and cholis (close-fitting upper garments worn with saris), kurtas (tunics or long shirts), dhotis (loincloths), and pajamas, as well as diverse other garments. A good many of them are threaded with gold and silver and weighted down with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and pearls.

A $750-a-plate dinner held before the exhibition's official opening will benefit the Costume Institute, which collects, restores, and exhibits costumes from the 17th century to the present. For the benefit, the fashion world and New York's partygoers turned out in their splashiest, newest haute couture decked with their Harry Winston and Cartier baubles. In curious contrast, the former potentates of India in the crowd -- the Maharajah of Jaipur and his stepmother, the Rajmata, for example - - chose to dress down. They settled for the minimal jewel, the unobtrusive black Nehru jacket, and the subdued sari.

No matter what social comment ``Costumes of Royal India'' might arouse, the influence of India on clothing and home decoration will go on as it has for centuries. Its list of contributions is long: shawl, calico, seersucker, chintz, khaki, cashmere, paisley, bungalow, pajama, gingham, dimity, bandanna, and dhurrie all originated in India.

Nor can the contributions of India's aristocracy be discounted: Sir Pratap Singh of Jodhpur, for one. He lost his luggage at sea when on the way to Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. The outcome of Sir Pratap's explanation of the cut of his breeches to a London tailor, Naveen Patnaik tells us in his entertaining book, was a new style of trousers. Without Sir Pratap, we wouldn't have jodhpurs.

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