A Cage Made of Crystal, Or a Fairy Tale

There was once a Maharaja who had two daughters. He was a just and noble ruler, but as time passed, he grew tired. Men stalked the borders of his land, intent on stealing his most treasured possession. He lived every single day, fearful that they would succeed.

He summoned forth his daughters, whom he loved dearly and equally. He said to them, my children, soon the wild beasts will be upon us, they will take our land and devour us until nothing is left.

Father, the eldest says, how can we stop them?

The Maharaja shakes his head, for nothing can be done. He has fought for so long, but the neighbouring states have also been conquered, he has no allies to come to his aid.

Here, he says, giving his eldest a misshapen stone, cloudy and pale. Keep this safe, hide it away and never let it catch the light of day, for it is worth the expense of the whole universe two times over. The eldest nods her head grimly and tucks the stone into the folds of her clothing.

Just then, an insurmountable army breaks into the palace. The Maharaja is thrown from his throne while his daughters are taken into the care of the interlopers. A great deluge falls upon the land, marking the end of an age.

Years pass, summer turns to fall, and fall turns into winter. The daughters grow—learned and strong. They are kept from their people in isolation, yet they long for freedom. The eldest hides the stone, as her father bade, but in the moonlight, with her sister beside her, she brings it forth so they may look upon it, wondering at its quiet banality.

As the sisters reach maturity, the interlopers soon come to fear a rebellion. The sisters are rushed onto a boat, setting sail for a land far, far away. The voyage stretches, long and terrifying. Many a night goes by when waves and storms beat the boat into submission, but the sisters stay strong, comforting in the fact that they still have each other.

When the ship docks the sisters are ushered onto a new land. It is cold, like the sea, and they stare in horror at the scene of greys and blacks in front of them.

What are we to do now? The youngest asks the eldest. Before she can reply, the sisters are whisked away.

There are brought to a palace formed from endless iron, twisted and terrible. Crystal walls stretch high above, containing within all the wonders of the world. Plants gather, murmuring quietly as the sisters pass through, walking along a golden path. A woman with a crown of jewels upon her head, stands at the cusp. Men gather around her, staring in wonder at the sisters’ approach.

The woman turns to them. Will you live in my palace, peaceful and loved? She asks.

The eldest daughter lifts her head and turns to her sister. This must be our empress, our Maharani, we must present her with a gift.

The youngest sister ponders upon this dilemma before unwrapping the golden sash from her waist. It belonged to their mother, and her mother before that. It is a sash fit for an empress.

The youngest sister present the golden sash. It runs through her fingers, shimmering in the light caught on the golden strands. The empress touches the gift, and returns it, to the befuddlement of the sisters. They wonder upon this empress who refuses to accept a gift given.

Just then, one of the men say, this is a wondrous moment for all your colonial children, dear queen.

You are their mother, they love you dearly, another says. The empress gathers the sisters in her arms, swaddling them in her embrace. The eldest holds her breath. The stone grows heavy at her waist.

The Empress takes them by the hand and leads them through the palace. The greenery parts for the trio, as though it wishes to be as far from the empress as possible. However, as soon as she leaves, a grand palm—a traveler—reaches for the sisters, gesturing for their approach.

From where do you come, darling children? To step within this palace kept by a queen so curious, the traveler asks.

From a land of warmth and rain, where the green is endless, and the sun shines so vibrant, the eldest replies.

Me as well, the traveler says. My clippings were brought from an island south of the horn, to be planted in this stifling soil. The traveler points to a tree of lace, amber strands reaching for the heavens. My friend sailed from far across the ocean to come here, perhaps it would have much in common with you?

The youngest approaches the lacy tree, pulling aside the branches. She startles when she sees a figure hidden behind.

From where did you come? She asks in wonder, eyes drifting over the patterns and intricacies of the figure’s dress.

The figure remains silent, but their eyes drift over the youngest’s shoulder, fixating on something unseen.

The lacy tree shakes its head. There is nothing that can be done, they have stayed too long in this palace of crystal, silent and contemplative. The melancholy has consumed them.

The youngest quivers. She wonders if she too will become the same.

Come, the traveler says interrupting her thoughts, sit by me and tell me of your adventures.

And so it comes to pass, as the sisters walk through their new home, talking to the flora gathered within, that they begin to notice the wrong, the not quite right.

The statues. They look like the sisters, but different, washed of colour and expression. They stand, empty of soul, and it frightens the eldest to her core. Displays of these statues surround a gleaming stone cut to perfection, It sits upon a plinth, a jewel, the treasure of the empress, of her people. The eldest stares in horror.

A treasure taken—never given. Gifts leave a sour taste in the empress’s mouth, but conquest is sweeter than honey.

The eldest grips tight the imperfect stone at her waist. The thought of her father’s greatest treasure stolen away and sliced until it gleams, renders her quiet.

Time passes and the sisters exist in a constant state of limbo. Visitors to the palace stare with mouths wide open, gawking at the wonders corralled within. The power of their empress put on display for their pleasure.

Look at our queen’s possessions! Look at what she has done, taming wild forests, capturing wild things. The hands of her civilized subjects recreating her colonial ones. Is she not powerful, is she not wonderous? The visitors reach to touch the sisters, marveling at their marvelousness—at their uniqueness. The sisters stare back.

The traveler gathers the sisters to its trunk. Do not be maudlin , do not fear, it says, for you shall become accustomed to this. The sisters glance at the figure sheltered beneath the lacy tree, and wonder what it means to become accustomed to fear.

We must leave, the eldest says, we must find our father. We must give him back his most precious treasure.

The figure beneath the lacy tree hears their plan. Silently they move, passing the plants who grab at their clothing, to no avail, sensing the desperation in their stature. They take the sliced stone in hand. Holding it up to a beam of light flowing through the crystal walls, fire bursts from the other side. It moves fast, consuming all in its path.

The cries of the traveler wake the sisters. You must go, it exclaims, flee before it consumes you too!

The sisters run through the burning palace, smoke wrapping in tendrils around their throats, trying to prevent their escape. The statures melt to pieces around them, faces twisting in mockery, but still the sisters run. The walls collapse around them, shattering to pieces.

Tears stream down the eldest sister’s face. She cries for the friends she has lost—the plants that she loved. She cries until she sees what is gathered in her sister’s palm. A clipping from the traveler.

We are free, the eldest exclaims. The youngest looks around at the cold, the smoke still reaching through the ruins of the palace, searching.

Are we? She asks skeptically.

The sisters wander, traversing the cobbled streets of the land not that far away. The traveler wilts in the youngest’s palms, but her warmth keeps it from expiring, even as it doesn’t grow.

They wander until they find their father in an inn by the sea. He sits beside the fireplace, staring deeply into the flames. When he sees his daughters, the Maharaja smiles in happiness, for it was not the stone that was the source of his happiness—but his daughters, whom he loves dearly and eternally.

The Maharaja sells the stone. With the money earned from the sale, the family lives happily ever after, never returning to the land from which they came.

Artist Statement

Through the intersection of display culture and the representation of Indians during the British Raj, I look at how the colonized were viewed by the colonizers. Most importantly, how the Raj wanted them to be viewed. The Raj failed in “civilizing” India, and the grandiose displaying of Indians was a strategy used to make it seem like all was well with Empire.

By meeting the gaze of the viewer, the colonized figures who are placed in a greenhouse display—an allegory of the Crystal Palace which housed The Great Exhibition of 1851, take back power by shifting the dynamic. Their gaze is disconcerting and vicious, like whomever is looking shouldn't be. The plants that surround the figures, who too have been collected from around the world and brought to the greenhouse, hide, cover, and protect those within.

Both craftsmen and the Indian elite were shipped to Britain, but because the wares of Indians were too expensive, British manufacturers produced artefacts that would remind people of the colonies. In my paintings I insert these exoticized artefacts from the Crystal Palace catalogue in order to contrast the idealized and stereotyped idea of Empire, with the people who actually existed.   

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