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A close encounter of the bejewelled kind

Unlike in the West, Indian jewels have never been signed by the craftsmen, who live and die unsung. Art historian Usha R. Bala Krishnan talks about the uniqueness of Indian traditional craftsmanship where the creator is sublimated in the process of creation.

IT WAS an evening that glittered with gold. Not just from the sparkling array of jewellery that adorned the elite gathering, but equally from the insights into rare facets of Indian jewellery uncovered by art historian Usha R. Bala Krishnan before our dazzled eyes.

Her fascinating presentation at the Leela Palace on October 27 was organised by C. Krishniah Chetty & Sons, the jewellery family since 1869, to mark the launch of their Heritage Foundation and the unveiling of their new logo.

Dr. Bala Krishnan is no stranger to fine art circles. She is the author of the definitive Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India, invested with 10 years of research. Recently, the Government of India invited her to document the 325-piece collection of the Nizams of Hyderabad, which it acquired in January 1995 for just under Rs. 218 crore. The result? A seminal exhibition-linked publication, Jewels of the Nizams.

In person, Dr. Bala Krishnan disarms you with both her erudition and her accessibility. She doesn't camouflage her knowledge behind jargon. Nor does she meander during her slide shows, whether on the gem-encrusted Nizam's collection or the finer aspects of appreciating Estate jewellery.

With a Ph.D. in Ancient Indian Culture and a post-doctoral degree in Museum Studies, her achievements are impressive. This consultant to Sotheby's pioneered the Mughal Jewellery project at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, and catalogued the Indian collection at Geneva's Musee Barbier Mueller. She's equally at ease with jewellery history, design, arts, crafts and lifestyles, whether pertaining to contemporary or ancient India. The sources of her scholarship are dramatic - archaeological excavations, sculptures and miniature paintings, literary classics such as Silappadikaram and Kalidasa's Sakuntala, Kautilya's Arthasastra, the journals of foreign travellers like Marco Polo and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, even temple records.

Here are glimpses into her rare and rich world, excerpted from an exclusive interview with the Mumbai-based jewellery historian:

Is your field commercially attractive?

Not really, but I love the subject. If Indian jewellery traditions are not documented, there'll soon be nothing left to document. There's a real danger of future scholars writing from guesswork. That's happening already. Over the last ten years, Western collectors had a sudden craze for antique Indian gold repousse pieces. Suddenly, I began seeing pieces that never existed. Obviously, a manufacturer was lifting designs from sculptures, even giving them a provenance of, say, a 400-year-old royal collection. Yet, I'd give my life and say these pieces aren't more than ten years old!

What's the import of the Nizam's collection?

It's probably the only collection with a royal provenance that we'll ever see in an Indian museum. Remember, the Nizam was once the world's richest individual, in India's most important native state. After the fall of the Mughals, the world's gem dealers flocked to the Nizam, who had a vast treasury. Even the maharajahs of Jaipur, Baroda or Indore fell into second place after the Nizam.

As an art historian, I could trace a chronology of styles or pieces with provenance dating back to their manufacture because the collection spans the 18th Century right through to the 20th Century. The sheer quality and size of the magnificent gemstones in the Nizam's jewels is unprecedented. These Colombian emeralds and Golconda diamonds are of a quality you and I will never see in a public collection, even if they do exist in private collections. So much of royal Indian jewellery has already been sold or broken up, the gemstones re-cut and recycled into new settings to hide their provenance.

How did it feel to document these jewels?

We were locked into the vault of the Reserve Bank of India in Mumbai for four days from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with staff from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and cameras trained on us. We were made to wear overalls without pockets, which tied at the back. We had to even document the diamonds on dazzling belts and sarpeches for the headgear, all packed into three green trunks. It could have been exhausting, but I was exhilarated by the experience.

How did the Indian jewellery trade grow?

It was concentrated in the Deccan, south of the Vindhyas. The rubies came from Burma, the diamonds from the Golconda mines, the emeralds from Colombia via the Portuguese and the Spanish trade. And the port of entry was invariably Goa. Upto the 16th Century, secrecy shrouded the location of gem mines. The local ruler controlled access; the best stones went into his treasury. Middlemen handled the stones, which they transported to gem bazaars at the nearest town, where craftsmen migrated from all over the country. That's how jewellers from Haryana, Bengal, Lahore, even Rajasthan, came to settle in Hyderabad.

The filigree tradition? Greek craftsmen, who came to India with Alexander, brought it to Bengal and Kerala. The evidence is in pieces excavated at Taxila, now in a Pakistani museum. They taught local craftsmen, who adapted it to native designs.

What distinguishes Indian jewellery from, say, the Western or Egyptian traditions?

I think it's the craftsmanship. Each piece is unique, even if the designs are similar. When you hand over a packet of stones of mixed shapes, sizes, and weights to an Indian jeweller, who has skills honed by generations, he can still produce a perfectly balanced piece to the naked eye that cannot distinguish how he accommodated an octagonal diamond on the right side with a round diamond on the left. Even today, the Western craftsman cannot do that.

As a society, have we given our jewellers their due?

Unlike in the West, Indian jewellery traditionally has never been signed by the craftsmen, who lived and died unsung. Occasionally we get references, in an inscription or a chronicle or a biography to say, the person who might have made the Peacock Throne. But isn't that the case in every sphere of Indian art? Do we have the names of the great temple sculptors? Who were the architects? Who were the sthapatis who made the Chola figures? We know of patrons. We have references to an artist in the Mughal period, in particular. Otherwise, it's been an Indian tradition since time immemorial that the craftsman's imagination is God-intoxicated, with the "I" being sublimated through creation. Jewellery was no different...


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