We have been hearing about it for several years now, so it is something of a relief to learn that the Amrapali Museum is finally ready for visitors. Almost. With a little over a month to go before its official launch, the team is working at breakneck speed, putting together the finishing touches – there are over 30,000 museum-worthy pieces, after all, collected over 35 years by Amrapali’s founders Rajiv Arora and his friend Rajesh Ajmera. Both Rajiv and his son, Tarang, currently chief executive and creative director of the fine jewellery brand that finds favour with Bollywood and Hollywood stars, have been hinting at this being the largest collection of silver jewellery in India. Spread over 6,500 sq ft and spilling over from the ground floor to the basement of the Amrapali HQ, the fine collection of jewellery and decorative objects won’t disappoint.
Exhibits include a silver and gold betel leaf container or pandaan from Banaras, a silver, gold and glass araipatta or waistband from Calicut, silver hair pins from 19th century Goa, 18th century armlets with painted images from Himachal Pradesh, and the most intricately carved cuffs and anklets from Assam, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and other states. There are scores of examples of wire braiding, hammering and soldering and perfume rings that will not look out of place in a contemporary setting (incidentally, the corporate office still gets persistent enquiries for ear covers that were featured in an issue of Vogue magazine months ago!). There are also plans to organise workshops, and host international curators at the museum.
Rajiv recalls how, in the early 80s, he and Rajesh would set out in a second-hand white Maruti 800, visiting villages and towns across the country. In Calicut, the 27-year-old History students met a dealer who melted silver jewellery and converted it to bullion. “A farmer came by with a gunny sack filled with hammered silver pieces. I was shocked and alerted the bullion dealer that we were willing to offer more than the market price for jewellery in good condition,” he recalls. Excerpts from our interview:
Your son Tarang says you have been working on this museum for the last 30 years.
When Rajesh and I were sourcing silver jewellery across India, we realised we wouldn’t be able to see such workmanship for much longer, as people were getting rid of it at pawn shops and with bullion dealers. Ours was a first-generation business started with some pocket money (approximately Rs 400), so it was initially difficult to collect jewellery that couldn’t be sold. In five years, we had about 70 pieces. In the early 2000s, when the Manchester-based Shisha Foundation approached us for six moving exhibits around the UK, we documented around 450-500 objects. We had collected so much of data, so we published the book, Chandrika , and that got us thinking about the museum.
How has the museum taken shape to become what it is today?
First came the documentation, which started before the construction of the museum. For the display, in addition to the aesthetics, we had to ensure that the objects were protected from the harmful fumes of wood. We could not place them directly on a wooden showcase, and the synthetic material Tyvek was suggested. Since each object had to be displayed with props, we had to send them all to the prop fabricator, a very lengthy process. The lights were customised, too.
How have you selected the 750 display pieces from your collection of over 3000 pieces of jewellery and artefacts?
It is a pan-India collection. The ground floor displays items of beauty and adornment, silver and gold jewellery for every part of the body, from virtually every section of India; with a special focus on pieces that are connected with rites of passage, from birth to death. The basement houses numerous inspirations for design that have been available to Indian craftsman over time, be it jewellery or silver objects.
You have visited over a 100 museums in the process. Important points?
That lighting is the most important feature of a museum, as is tight security. The museum can’t just be a visual experience but should have historical and academic value as well.
Your team tells us you haven’t stopped collecting jewellery and artefacts.
Our most recent acquisition is an enamelled braid ornament and armlet ( bajuband ) originally from the Pakistan city of Multan. It is from the 19th century and is displayed in the beauty and adornment section of the Museum.
Are you sharing your stories at the museum via the audio guide and will some of the jewellery displayed be accompanied by photos taken at source?
Less than 15 per cent of the jewellery has been photographed on people, for in those days they were wary or shy in front of the camera. It was interesting to learn how jewellery was not just for ornamentation but also had ritual and cultural value. There was jewellery that only unmarried women could wear, and indicators of the geographical location. Yes we will have an audio guide.
Given your workforce of over 1,500 people, can visitors place orders for museum replicas?
No. But we have a museum shop, selling authentic old tribal silver jewellery and some of them are similar to the ones displayed in the museum.
The Amrapali Museum will launch during the Jaipur Literature Festival, in January 2018. Details: 141 5191100