Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Great Tradition of North And South Indian Jewelry

Jadeite pendant, Jaipur The sea-green jadeite is a perfect foil for the delicate gold wire inlay studded with rubies and diamonds in a floral motif. Notice how precise and clean cut the work is."In Jewells (which is one of his felicities’) hee is the treasury of the world, buying all that comes, and heaping rich stones as if lice would rather build then weare them." 

Sir Thomas Roe about the Emperor Jahangir, 17th century AD 

Even in a country long reknown for its jewellery tradition, the Mughal Emperors set a new benchmark in techniques and elegance. The dynasty represented a watershed in jewellery aesthetics, spurring craftsmen to greater heights with the discernment of their demands, adopting with enthusiasm motifs from India such as the nine stones of the navaratna, lavishly displayed in necklaces and armlets. It was not jewellery alone that engaged their artistic attention. With their arrival, the colour palette of textiles changed, softened, to absorb the pastel shades born of a more temperate climate. 

Architecture took a new turn, the squat dome of the Afghans replaced by the ethereal double dome of the Persians. The Mughal genius was to bring new ideas to the craftsmen of Hindustan while building upon their inherent skills. In many ways it was beauty both redefined and refined, rising to heights of excellence rarely surpassed in succeeding centuries. At the pinnacle of empire, they achieved a synthesis of Islamic style and Indian workmanship that astounded the rest of the world.

Hath-phool, Northern India, 19th cent. AD  The hath-phool (literally, hand flower) was an elaborate ornament comprising a wristlet and a decorated motif for the back of the hand, and culminating in rings for the fingers. The ornament pictured here is worked in gold studded with rubies, diamonds and emeralds and a border of pearlsWe see jewellery everywhere: in the delicate patkas or waistbands crafted from fine muslins, in the glowing colours of the miniature paintings commissioned for portfolios, in the monumental marble inlaid with semi-precious stones, on almost any stone or metal surface. The adornment of surfaces was a Mughal mĂ©tier and articles of everyday use, from pen stands to wine cups to huqqa bases and dagger hilts, were richly patterned with gold inlay and precious stones. The decorative impulse was born of the taste that Babur brought with him from the grasslands of the Ferghana, nourished by Persian influences, brought to fruition by Indian hands. 

All this was not without its practical side. It was the Mughal show of strength, a means of quelling potential rebellion through a display of the sheer dazzling opulence that represented power. It was a statement of empire by a dynasty that carried the bitter race memory of struggle and failure. Jewellery and gemstones were the easily portable materials that powered conquest or were standbys in times of need. In the 16th century, the beleaguered Humayun sought shelter at the court of Shah Tahmasp of Persia; in return he had to hand as tribute the Babur diamond which his father had taken from Ibrahim Lodi after the Battle of Panipat. (Some believe that the gem given was the Kohinoor; others, that in fact the two are one and the same stone.)

Nayika, miniature painting from Deogarh, 18th cent. AD  The gracefully arched body of the maiden shows off her jewellery. Forearms, wrists, neck and ankles are lavishly ornamented. Her hands bear the hath-phool and the jhoomar in her hair seems to sway as enticingly as the girdle across her hips, No wonder, then, that the collection of such riches was important. Gems and jewellery, indeed whole mines, were the tributes exacted from loyal subjects and vassals. They enhanced the treasury vastly, as did the estates of dead nobles and heirless families. 

The Mughals also loved jewellery and gemstones as intrinsic objects of beauty and had an obsession for gathering the finest. An ever-meticulous monarch, Akbar established karkhanas or workshops for various disciplines in his City of Victory at Fatehpur Sikri. Here, in addition to the crafting of jewellery, he entrusted the buying and selling of gems to four officials whoare named in the Ain-i-Akbari as Itimad Khan Gujarati, Baqi Khan, Jagmal and Hakim Ain ul-Mulk. The interest in gems was carried on by his son and grandson. 

Bangle, Rajasthan, 19th cent. AD  In this classic combination of enamels and gems, the bangle (one of a pair) has part of its outer surface set with diamonds and rubies. The front is frilled with seed pearls held on gold wire, whereas the inner surface is rich with red and green enamelling on a white base. Edward Terry, the Chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe, described Jahangir as "the greatest and richest master of precious stones that inhabits the whole earth". Shah Jehan was fascinated by gems, but more than that he was a connoisseur with a keen and discerning eye for quality whose acumen and judgement were easily as good as a jeweller's. It was estimated that it would take an expert 14 years to see and appraise the emperor's personal jewels. 

How eerily reminiscent of the Vijayanagara empire to the south. Here too there Was a richness of gems, available in the bazaars with the same ease as flowers or cloth. On auspicious festival nights, the Raya's wives would march in a procession bearing golden lamps, each so weighed down by gem-encrusted robes and her own jewellery that she could scarcely walk. When the empire was defeated at the Battle of Talikota, it took the victorious armies nearly six months to strip the city of its riches and reduce it to rubble. 

Two centuries later and far to the north a similar event occurred with the sacking of Delhi by Nadir Shah. It took him a fortnight just to melt down the Mughal gold and silver. Thousands of chests of metals, gems and jewellery left the country, including the famous Peacock Throne.

Jhoomar, North India, probably Mughal, 18th cent. AD  The jhoomar is worn on one side of the forehead or above the ear. Above is a sumptuous combination of enamel, diamonds and pearls. A brilliant blue peacock rises from the rich green ground, while below, strings of pearls end in a row of finely-wrought enamelled little fish, emblems of fertility. The peacock holds a pearl in his beak, the most delicate of poetic jewelled conceits.Yet there remains a living heritage, not just the objects and artefacts seen in museums but in the fine techniques practised even today and a vocabulary of exquisite jewellery motifs. One of the most enduring parts of this legacy is the technique of enamelling, which was perhaps not new to India but which rose under the Mughals to a high point of refinement.

But before we come to enamelling, let us look at kundan which provides the field, as it were. Kundan is a technique used for setting stones. The purest, softest gold is hammered into very fine sheets and literally moulded around the stones to encase them and hold them in place. The stones can then be cut or polished as the design demands. Because the stones are encased, the light strikes them only from above; so, to provide depth and refraction, a piece of foil gold, silver or coloured is placed under the stone to give it a glow. Kundan practised in this form only in India has several advantages over Western-style bezel or claw setting. 

Bangles, Benaras, Mughal, 19th cent. AD  Elephant trunks intertwine in this pair of bangles wrought in Benaras in its famous gulabi-meena or rose-coloured enamel. The bracelets are set in diamonds, and rose and green enamel work with floral motifs decorates the insides of the bracelets.
Most importantly, it eliminates the time and labour needed to fabricate each setting separately to the size of the stone thus giving the craftsman the freedom to use irregular shapes and sizes. In turn, this means that a stone need only be minimally cut, preserving as far as possible its original size. And it enables work to be carried out without soldering or applying heat, since the gold is soft enough to encase the stone by simply pressing it in. 

Kundan setting with exquisite enamelling on the reverse was a great favourite of the Mughals and remains one of the most prized forms of the jewellery repertoire even today. 

Lady being offered wine, miniature painting from Golconda, Deccan, 17th cent. AD  Here, the jewellery appears all the more luxuriant for being placed against the boldly-striped sari. There is a lavish use of pearls so favoured in the Deccan, but there is also an intricate gold girdle below the waistband. The anklets are delicate, and on the foot, marked with red alta, we can glimpse the toe-ring.The enamelling process itself demands the pooling of a number of skills and so an entire team of specialists works on a single piece. First, the designer selects a design which is then passed to the goldsmith. He in turn creates the appropriate gold form and gives it back to the designer who now outlines the pattern on the surface and burnishes it so that the pattern stands out. It is then the engraver's turn to work on the piece, which calls for great skill and precision as the jewellery surfaces are small. 

Most Indian enamelling is of' the kind called champlevé, literally, raised field, so the engraver's task is to excavate those areas of the metal that will take the enamel by carving them out. These lowered surfaces are hatched with fine parallel lines to enable a thorough fusion between colour and metal; this adds to the visual delight as the hatchings enhance the play of light and shade over the transparent colours.

Jhoomar,  Jaipur Worn on the side of the head, we may imagine this ornament emerging from under the head veil of a shy bride. Only the end piece would have been visible, and this is richly ornamented on both sides, on the obverse with kundan and pearls, on the reverse with delicate bird, floral and foliate motifs in red, white and green enamel.The next stage is undertaken by the meenakar or enameller who will fill in the colours to the level of the surface (raising the field) and then fuse them to the gold through repeated firings. Since the enamels are of various hardness and thus require different temperatures for fusing, they must be fired separately and in a particular sequence that goes from hardest (highest temperature) to softest (lowest temperature). 

Cooling is as important as heating; a flaw at this stage could crack the enamel or render it undesirably opaque. The usual colour sequence begins with white and runs through blue, green, black and yellow before reaching red. Rich ruby is the signature colour of Jaipur enamelling and achieves here an unmatched brilliance and clarity. "The purer the gold, the richer the colour," goes an old saying, and the red meena of Jaipur is applied to a high karat gold. 

Reverse of a necklace, Jaipur  The styling of the reverse is reminiscent of an old Mughal method of decorative engraving. Here, however, we are able to see clearly the technique of meena engraving and what the ground must have looked like before the colours or enamels were applied.We are not finished yet. For now the enamelled surfaces must be polished so that they lie evenly with the rest of the surface. The jewellery then goes to the kundan setter before being sent to the patua or stringer, whose task is to thread the jewellery with drawstrings and make it ready to wear. 

Given the sometimes minute surfaces that are worked on, the wealth of detail and depth of colour are truly amazing. This is jewellery at its most precise yet ornamental, where elaborate vines curl around flowers and birds dance in monsoon delight. Why then is some enamelling only at the back of the jewellery, where it cannot be seen at all? There are many answers, some practical, some more complex. 

High karat gold had to be protected from the wear and tear of use; such protection was given by the enamelled surface which also stiffened the gold and retained its shape. But some theorists believe in pehchan, that secret recognition that exists between the maker and the wearer, which needs no public approbation to validate it. It is a form of artistic tryst, an unspoken bond between the educated appreciation of the buyer and the finely-honed skills of the craftsman. As a concept, it has an elegance and sophistication equal to that of the art itself. 

Adiya ("of the rich") necklace, Jaipur  One of the most lavish examples of the jeweller's repertoire, the adiya necklace features a rigid choker from which flows a cascade of set gems. In this fine example, we see the kundan work and brilliant red enamel of Jaipur. Enamelling, however, was not the only brought the gemstone into wide use course, the colour associated with emerald mountain stands for the aspiration. The stones were used in often worked upon by master motifs of flowers or foliage on them contribution of the Mughals. 

Their love of emeralds during this era. Green is, of Islam; in the Sufi belief, an highest level of spiritual a number of ways, and lapidaries who carved or inscribed them with sacred words. To inscribe lineage on a gemstone was a means of its perpetuation, and additions were made as the stone passed from one generation to the next. 

History has shown us that symbols of empire tend to proliferate as authority shrinks, and an example of this is the sarpech or turban ornament. In practice, the turban carried a special significance in that era being the prerogative of royalty and their nobles, and the gift of a turban was a mark of imperial esteem, a gracious honour selectively bestowed by the monarch. As the empire went into decline, the design of the sarpech became more elaborate, its use more widespread; doubtless there were loyalties to be bought and opposition to be placated. It was sadly noted by a contemporary historian that the grant of a sarpech was no longer regulated by the rank and dignity of the recipient.

Necklace, Mughal, 18th cent. AD  A stunning Navratna necklace of the Mughal style. Plaques are studded with precious and semi-precious stones, including the nine auspicious gems, and strung together. Pearls embellish the upper part of the necklace, whose back is enamelled with birds and floral motifs. From relatively simple beginnings a bird's feather or kalgi swept back and weighted down with a pearl the sarpech evolved until by the time of Shah Jehan it was intricately ornamented. The plume was now crafted from gold and gemstones and later still was added the sarpatti, a jewelled band across the forehead. In its most florid form the sarpech comprised the forehead band and a number of plumes, sometimes as many as five.

The glorious jewellery tradition of the Mughals did not disappear with the declining fortunes of the dynasty. Like so many other forms, miniature paintings for example, it spread to other areas, enriching regional characteristics and styles with the grandeur of its vision. Jewellery found a particularly fertile sod in Rajasthan, already renowned for the skill of its craftsmen, there to flourish in regions such as Jaipur, Bikaner and Jodhpur. 

"A goddess? Or a rare peacock? Or a woman Decked with jewels?" asks my heart amazed. 

Tamil, from The Kural by Thiruvalluvar

 Kalgi pendant earrings, Jaipur  The pendants are shaped like the kalgi, the jewelled feather set in turbans. Kundan is fringed with spine's; there are Basra pearls including on the part that hooks the ornament to the hair. The reverse is enamelled.Across South India, from the kingdoms of the Deccan sultans to the empire of Vijayanagara and the fiefdoms of the Malabar rajas, the jewellery repertoire was not only enormous but highly regionally varied. To attempt even a fair description of these riches would be to enumerate a catalogue of names and types, so let us concentrate on Tamil Nadu. Even here the repertoire is vast, its artistic expression catered to by the gold and gem mines of the south and the flourishing trade in gemstones.

Gold was the predominant material of Tamil Nadu and its favourite gems, diamonds, rubies and pearls. The absence of multi-coloured gems was more than made up for by the very fine and highly skilled workmanship in gold. The descendants of the Chola artisans were masters of the repousse technique that is, creating designs in relief by etching and hammering the gold from the reverse side. Such designs were often studded with precious stones. In stamp decoration work, patterned metal dies were used to form the impressions on gold. 

Of the many ornaments in the area, three will give some idea of the jewellery, its artistry, its profound and constant connection with the world of nature and of the gods. 

Sarpech, turban ornament, Mughal, 18th cent. AD  Turbans were embellished with sarpatti, or a forehead band, and a jewelled plume. In this lavish example of the Mughal style, a large hexagonal carved emerald dominates the centre, with two smaller rectangular emeralds at the sides. Large uncut emeralds hang below and at the tip of the plume, while diamonds are set all around.The jadanagam, an elaborate hair ornament, represents not only a high point in the jeweller's art but also visually encapsulates a number of concepts. Naga is snake, symbol of fertility and procreation, and the nagar crowns the ornament in the shape of a multiple-headed cobra. 

The rest of the jadanagam covers the braid, its snake-like form accentuating the fall of the hair and the shape of the plait underneath, ending in jaunty kunjalams or tassles. The triple strands of the hair that made up the plait were said to represent the three sacred rivers, Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati. In its complete form the jadanagam would include a disc and a crescent, the sun and the moon. The ornament was an essential part of the shringar or decoration of the devadasi, the temple dancers. 
 
Rudraksha mala, Tamil Nadu, 19th cent. AD In the wealthy mercantile community of the Nattukotai Chettiars men's necklaces like the one pictured here, combining the sacred rudraksha beads with finely-wrought gold, are worn for festive occasions such as the 60th birthday. The necklace has a casket, above which is a figure of Nataraja poised in dance. Uniquely South Indian is the mangamalai, the mango necklace, whose origins go as far back as the Chola era. Long and heavy (in earlier times it would have gone down to the waist) it is a garland of mango-shaped pendants set with gems, usually rubies. The mango has many resonances: it is the sacred fruit of the gods ripened from a wish-fulfilling tree and stands for love and fertility. The characteristic fan-shaped pendant is fringed with pearls. 

Tha tali represents the constancy of love in marriage and its antiquity is traced back to very early Tamil literature. From the day it is placed around her neck during her wedding ceremony, a woman never removes it unless parted by death. The word tali has been used interchangeably for the necklace as well as the pendant amulet that is such an important part of it, and it is worn throughout South India, including in non-Hindu communities. Fine and intricate versions of the tali are seen amongst the Nattukotai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu, a wealthy mercantile people. Here the distinctive pendant (athanam) is shaped like the four fingers of a hand, representing the four Vedas; this is surmounted by a depiction of the gods, very often Shiva and Parvati, the ideal union, or Lakshmi for prosperity. 

Jadanagam, Tamil Nadu, ca. late 19th cent. AD  Hair braid ornament; the intricate gold design is studded with rubies and diamonds and fringed with pearls.An important ceremony in the same community is the shashti poorthi; according to Hindu belief, a man's life span is 120 years and his sixtieth birthday celebrates its halfway mark. It is an occasion for celebration, an auspicious moment to wear the necklace known as Rudraksha mala, also known as gaurishankaram or gaurisamgamam, made of the sacred beads. Its amulet box serves as a portable shrine, containing either the twin bead Rudraksha symbolising the union of Shiva and Parvati, or vibhuti, the ashes from a consecrated fire, or a tiny Shiva linga. 

In these great traditions of North and South we are reminded that jewellery is more than adornment or the sum of its parts and their value. The mastery of its craftsmen, nurtured by generations of inherited skills, served a cause beyond decoration. If the sarpech stood for temporal power, let us recall the emeralds engraved with holy words from the Qu'ran, objects of spiritual contemplation. Throughout India, such metaphors were part of the jewellery tradition, made richer by the amazing virtuosity of its craftsmen.

  Writer - AshaRani Mathur 
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