See Inside India’s Opulent New Sculpture Park in a 19th-Century Palace

Alina Cohen
Aug 12, 2019 5:10PM

Richard Long, River of Stones, 2018. Courtesy of The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace.

About four miles from the center of Jaipur, in northwest India, Nahargarh Fort rises from the scrub-studded hills. Madhavendra Palace peers out from inside the stone fortress walls, its 19th century architecture rhyming with the ornate, pastel architecture for which the city is famous—30 minutes away, the Hawa Mahal, an apricot-hued, layer cake of a building attracts tourists and photographers year round. In December 2017, Madhavendra Palace itself became a major destination when it opened as India’s first contemporary sculpture park.

Tanya Goel, Gradients on modernist fragments , 2018. Courtesy of The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace.


The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace unites tradition with novelty, honoring Jaipur’s creative past while supporting living artists. Floral murals, elaborate arches, patterned columns, dark paneled doors, and stone-lined courtyards serve as maximal backdrops for sculptures—many of them site-specific—that simultaneously respond to the environment and introduce challenging new ideas into the space. Beauty and contemporary politics collide in room after room; visits to the palace become opulent treasure hunts.

The Sculpture Park—a collaboration between the Government of Rajasthan, non-profit Saat Saath Arts, and a number of corporate partners—aims to increase tourism and promote contemporary art in the region. “We were genuinely frustrated about how little contemporary public art there was in the country,” Saat Saath Arts cofounder Aparajita Jain told Architectural Digest. “So we went on a scouting mission.” Noelle Kadar, the former international director for the Indian Art Fair, directs the Sculpture Park and hopes to increase public programming over the coming years.

Sebastiano Mauri, Aliens , 2018. Courtesy of The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra

Peter Nagy, founder of the New Delhi-based gallery Nature Morte, serves as the Sculpture Park’s curator, organizing one year–long exhibition at a time. His second show, open through November, includes work by artists from across four continents. About 70 percent, according to Kadar, respond directly to Jaipur’s architecture and the palace itself. It was always Nagy’s dream, she said, “to show large-scale contemporary works in a heritage site.” Instead of altering the Palace to accommodate new work, the team uses the structures already in place—hooks, fabrics, swings, or fans from the early 1900s, for example.

Along, open courtyard houses British artist Richard Long’s red, snaking River of Stones. Made from local sandstone, the work alludes to the country’s sacred waters. Indian artist Tanya Goel—who’s also on Nature Morte’s roster—presents rocky pink, blue, and yellow “paintings” from New Delhi demolition debris. Her work, Gradients on Modernist Fragments (2018) sits on pedestals in front of a vivid yellow wall, introducing urban architecture into the refined, royal space.

Reena Saini Kallat, Chorus, 2017. Courtesy of The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace.

Italian-Argentinian artist Sebastiano Mauri’s Aliens (2018), a set of glass vitrines through which the viewer can see dolls and faux-forests, suggests fairy tales perfect for this storybook setting. And Reena Saini Kallat’s Chorus (2017) resembles a steampunk contraption on an eight-legged base. Modeled off listening devices used during World War II, the sculpture plays bird calls made by Indian peacocks, Pakistani chukars, Palestinian sun birds, and Israeli hoopoes. Where the original device captured the sounds of aircraft noises, Kallat’s chosen acoustics are much more peaceful.

Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II commissioned Madhavendra Palace in the early 1880s, and the architecture was completed the following decade. Aesthetic interests ran in his royal line: His predecessor, Ram Singh II, was known as the “photographer prince.” He amassed over 6,000 individual pictures throughout his life, including many portraits of his wives and concubines. Given the Maharaja’s apparent fascination with these women, it’s particularly intriguing that he had no heirs—he had to appoint Madho Singh II.

Chryasanne Stathacos, Five Mirrors of the World, 2018. Courtesy of The Sculpture Park at Madhavendra Palace.

Madho Singh II, an art collector himself, was known to be progressive. Throughout his rule, he supplied hospitals with modern machinery, extended railway lines, and supported publishing and newspapers. Madho Singh II’s successor, Sawai Man Singh II, lived a glamorous life as well: Cecil Beaton photographed one of his wives, Gayatri Devi, whom Vogue named one of the world’s most beautiful women. Sawai Man Singh II died in 1970 after collapsing in the middle of a polo match.

Against this storied backdrop of art patronage, aesthetic appreciation, and regal glitz, new generations of artists contend with what’s been lost, and what more there is to gain.

Alina Cohen