This superbly executed altarpiece of Durga relates to the popular Durga Puja which became firmly established among the native princes and officials of Bengal during the government of Lord Cornwallis in British India. After the Hindu reformists conflated Durga with India, she became an icon for the Indian independence movement. In the first quarter of the 20th century, the tradition of Baroyari or community puja was popularized and became one of the most important festivals.
Murshidabad, along with Berhampur and Cassimbazar in Bengal, was an important center for ivory carving from the mid-18th century onwards, producing various articles for the court as well as presentation pieces, collectibles and furniture influenced by European designs, executed with unsurpassed workmanship.
The alterpiece bears the maker's name of Toolsee Ram and the date 1836. Two closely related but unsigned examples commissioned for International exhibitions in the 1850s are both in the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum: A Durga altar commissioned for The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London (inv. no. 1070-1852), see R. Skelton et. al., Arts of Bengal, The Heritage of Bangladesh and Eastern India, 1979, cat. no. 232, p. 75; the other featured at the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris, as illustrated by Tardy, Les Ivoires, 1977, p. 167 (inv. no. 02466 (IS)).
The present example was almost certainly presented by the Nawab of Bengal to King William IV who reigned until 1837. A label on the reverse bearing the monogram of King George V indicates that it was placed in Room 218 in the South Apartments at Windsor Castle during the time of his reign (1910-36). Interestingly, the altarpiece is not included in Joseph Nash's 1845 watercolor illustration of the interiors of Room 218, indicating that it was moved to the South Apartments at a later date.
The present piece was included in the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester of 1857 as a loan from Queen Victoria, the largest ever art exhibition in the United Kingdom. Art Treasures featured 16,000 exhibits and attracted over 1.3 million visitors, including Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and John Ruskin. Queen Victoria loaned a total of 139 works, of which this was one. It is not known when the altarpiece may have left the Royal Collection.