Don’t miss the Nizams’ gems at the Delhi National Museum

On a velvet cushion, incongruously held up by a bed of nails, rests a 185-carat diamond. Said to be the fifth largest in the world, the 58-faceted Jacob Diamond, almost double the size of the Koh-i-Noor, forms the centrepiece of the ongoing Jewels of India: The Nizam’s Jewellery Collection exhibition at Delhi’s National Museum.

The 173-piece collection has already been shown in the capital twice (2001 and 2007), but this time the jewels and pieces of jewellery — sarpechs (turban ornaments), necklaces, earrings, stringed shirt buttons, and more — have been re-grouped and re-imagined in an effort to develop a storyline. “Curatorial work is imagination, too,” says exhibit curator Sanjib Kumar Singh, pointing to how the first section of jewels, arranged to visualise a Nizam in his ceremonial regalia, sets the tone. However, after the first display, the rest of the narrative and how it plays out through the gallery isn’t entirely clear.

Don’t miss the Nizams’ gems at the Delhi National Museum

Crown jewels

What is incontrovertible, though, is their grandeur, richness and craftsmanship. While the diamonds are largely from Golconda, the 37-gram Jacob (also called the Victoria and Imperial diamond) was mined in South Africa. A panel outside details its journey from the Kimberley mines in 1884, to London’s Hutton Garden and, later, Amsterdam, where it was polished in a specially-erected workshop.

Diamond as a paperweight
  • Tales of debt, deceit and neglect pepper the Jacob Diamond’s history, including an enquiry into non-payment of fees. Stories claim this so angered the Nizam that he shoved the diamond into a shoe and forgot about it. It resurfaced when his son, Mir Osman Ali Khan, found it and began using it as a paperweight.

It was finally sold to Nizam Mahaboob Ali Khan of Hyderabad in 1891 by Alexander Jacob, a Shimla-based diamond dealer, for ₹23 lakh.

“This collection really epitomises the extreme wealth and craftsmanship that existed here,” says Usha Balakrishnan, art historian and author of the 2001 book Jewels of the Nizams. Each of the ornaments on display has at least two security cameras on it at all times, and the exhibit has been accorded Z+ security status, with CISF personnel standing guard at the entryways. Justified, in keeping with how much the jewels are worth. The Government of India purchased the collection in 1995 from the trust that held it, for ₹218 crore. But its worth is much higher now, approximately ₹2,000 crore.

Don’t miss the Nizams’ gems at the Delhi National Museum

Capital sparkle

Besides diamonds, the collection — predominantly from the 18th and 19th centuries — also includes Colombian emeralds, Burmese rubies and spinets, and Basra pearls. Three types of craft stand out: diamond cutting, kundan work, and enamelling. The last one, especially, is so beautifully executed that a few pieces have been displayed stone-side down to showcase the intricate workmanship. The twin-bird motif of the Padak Almas Kanval pendant is a great example, with an enamelled back and variously-cut diamond-studded front.

Some of the collection’s simplest-looking pieces belie the level of skill that has gone into making them. Like the three-string diamond chain, Kanthi Dholna Almas Wa Mothi. Each of the stones was drilled carefully, just enough to let a resham thread pass through. “We need to look at the care [given to] these jewels a little bit more,” says Balakrishnan. “They shouldn’t be lying around in lockers for 12 years. Some of it, like the pearls, are organic. They should be brought out for air and viewing more frequently.”

Small wonder
  • Many of the pieces were crafted for and worn by the children. The Bachkani Almas Kanval sarpech was made for Mir Mahbub Ali Khan, who became the Nizam at the age of three.

The exhibit also showcases prints of rare photographs from the royal family’s once-private albums — including those taken at the Raja Deendayal studio. Balakrishnan gained access to the Chowmahalla Palace archives after Nizam Mukarram Jha’s wife, Princess Esra, documented them about a decade ago. She discovered that they depicted the jewels in use. Displayed at strategic spots throughout the gallery, they help contextualise how the royalty accessorised.

The exhibition is on till May 5, at the National Museum in Janpath. Balakrishnan will hold a public lecture on March 28 and a gallery walk on March 29. The admission fee is ₹50. Details:

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 1:52:40 PM |

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