RUPA GOPAL

One of the greatest collections of Islamic art, the al Sabah Collection that includes legendary gems and jewels of the Mughals, is on display for the first time ever, at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore. The exhibition is on till June 2010…

The entire exhibition setting recreates Mughal interiors, complete with carpets, cushions, jali screens, and large backdrops of Mughal miniatures.

I mperial Mughal splendour! A timeless beauty charms the viewer, gazing agape at the 400 objects of jewelled art, on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, till June 2010. The fabled al-Sabah Collection is one of the greatest collections of Islamic art, spanning 40 years of diligent sourcing, and collecting. The legendary gems and jewels of the Mughals entranced the Kuwaiti royal couple of Sheikh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah and Sheikha Hussah Sabah al-Salim al-Sabah, and it is a part of their huge fabled collection that is beautifully exhibited now, in Asia for the first time ever, in 13 comprehensive sections.

The Mughal rulers, who ruled India from 1526-1857, developed a heightened awareness and appreciation of all things beautiful — costumes, jewels, cuisine, gardens, perfumes, the performing arts, and religious art. Eurasian amalgamation was achieved by mutual interaction among the artisans, local and visiting, to produce stunning works of art.

Kundan and Ajour stone setting set Mughal jewels apart, creating unusual designs where stones of varying size and shape could be set side by side. Ajour recreated the stained glass effect, giving the gems a translucent limpid beauty, a distinct European influence.

Touch of elegance

Stone inlay on hard, stone-like rock crystal, jade and nephrite, and relief-moulded and hammered works all made dining, and basic daily objects elegant, for the elite Mughal.

Painstaking jewellers decorated the back of the ornamental jewel too, engraving intricately, making the back as attractive as the front. Flower power thrilled the Mughals, especially Shah Jahan. This unexpected gentle side to the often martial Mughals gave rise to floral and plant motifs used as backgrounds for gem setting and enamelling. Lotus, rose and hibiscus were etched into the metal surface, leaving troughs for filling in with varied enamel colours, to be fired after. This ‘champleve' technique was mastered by the Mughals, creating sheer poetry, in enamel.

Drinking cups received respectful attention. Jade and emerald were decorated delicately, and duly drunk in, in confidence, as both were considered antidotes to poison. Indeed, emerald had the further incomparable virtue of letting one drink plenty, without getting drunk, adding to its immense attraction! Gold fruit dishes and plates were set with priceless rubies and emeralds. Gold huqqabases had beautiful gemset mouthpieces, while fly-whisks had gemset handles. Daggers and sword hilts, scabbards and shields were all embellished beyond belief. Miniature Quran books encased in precious metal set with superior gems, or enamelled — all this and more is displayed with expertise, subtly lit to maximum effect. Explanatory cards below each display give plenty of detailed information, making it a beauteous learning experience.

The Deccani influence on the Mughals too is apparent in the collection, with a very distinct South Indian trend in ornaments like the fabulous pair of 18th century jadai nagamin gold, set with precious gems in the Kundan style. A huge choker from Hyderabad, from the mid-18th century, is in gold, Kundan-set with huge diamonds and pearls, with a large emerald pendant.

Flights of fancy

Fanciful rings and pendants took the shape of birds, much loved by the Mughals. Set with gems, these are made to rotate 360 degrees, and bob up and down! Rubies, emeralds, chrysoberyl, cat's eye, diamonds and sapphire make such pieces even more unique.

The sarpech, or the turban jewel became an integral part of the royal Mughal's personal decoration. It was set with the rarest gems, worn proudly on the regal head, a symbol of his status for all to see, and acknowledge.

The entire exhibition setting recreates Mughal interiors, complete with carpets, cushions, jaliscreens, and large backdrops of Mughal miniatures. These backdrops also serve as discovery walls, with panels lifted to reveal fun facts, making it a pleasurable voyage of discovery for the viewer. The turban station allows one to try on replicas of the era, while colouring and motif-stamping stations keep kids occupied, while also imparting knowledge. Expert talks, a Kathak recital enacting the immortal love story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, and curatorial tours all endeavour to take this exhibition to special levels of dedication. The expression ‘Wah Huzoor' comes readily to mind, so splendid is this Treasury of the World , words used by Sir Thomas Roe in 1616, to describe the jewelled splendour of Jahangir. The Mughals were truly an inspired race, endowing India with the art of ornamentation unmatched.