Monday, 17 June 2013

The Unknown Goldsmith


The pommel is carved from rock crystal in the form of a ram's head, inlaid with gold and square-cut rubies, to resemble a bridle; the eyes are of cat's eye. The scabbard is possibly European. Rock crystal has been described by Pliny as: "While a stone to the touch, it seems like water to the eye." The technique of working in this material was mastered by the Indian goldsmith. The atelier a single small worn, hot, humid and poorly ventilated. Here, men sit amidst burning furnaces and heating crucibles,   surrounded by the gentle tap-tap-tap of stones being set, gold being cut, wires being drawn and pipes being blown. This is the workshop and the humble abode of the Indian jeweller. Handmade and painstakingly crafted, each ornament is the culmination of a creative process combining artistic genius, technical prowess and manual dexterity, made with an attention to detail that could only be the product of love and dedication.

The Indian jewel was created by an unknown craftsman, who was also a master of metallurgy. What he crafted was not valued merely for its size or the quality of the gems he used. He seemed to possess supernatural powers in his deft handling of the medium, imparting a sense of illusion, maya, to the object. This quality is expressed in the Shilappadikaram: "In one of the rooms of Mashattuvan's stately house stood a large couch. Its legs, studded with precious stones, were made with such art that they were thought to be the work of Maya, the craftsman of the genii."

The goldsmith, or sonar as he is popularly known in the north, and thattan, achary or tattasari, as he is known in the south, belongs to a separate caste, whose position in the social hierarchy is relatively low. Traditionally, he worshipped his own idols, married within his community and passed his technical expertise as well as his trade down to his sons. By virtue of his extraordinary skill, he had the privilege, perhaps more than any other section of the lower castes, of interacting with men and women from the upper castes, had access to the zenana, and was trusted with handling incalculable amounts of wealth.

Seven rows of faceted gold beads form this classical ornament for the neck. The kantha-tuda and kanthika mentioned in ancient inscriptions were most likely the predecessors of this elegantly simple necklace. References to goldsmiths and their functions and duties abound in texts through the ages. The Yajurveda refers to bead-makers as manikara, and the goldsmith as hiranyakara. Asvaghosha calls them s-parna kara, sparna karmara and ratna karmatya. "Perhaps the first indicated an ordinary goldsmith and the second a specialist,"4 while the third was probably the gem-setter. But the name suparanakara, meaning 'one who worked in gold', was most common.

With the large supply of gold and gems at their disposal, kings established ateliers (kharkbane), their sole purpose being to create jewels for the ruler. The Arthashastra pronounces that workshops for gold (akhsashala) were to be established by the state and supervised by the goldsmith (sauvarnikah), who was also an employee of the state. Private goldsmiths worked under the supervision of the sauvarnikahs State-run workshops produced items for the general public, but in the imperial set-up, goldsmiths were part of the court organization.


Hara Necklace
While workshops in the court and market-place were common, the tradition of the family jeweller is perhaps unique to India. Until recently, the jeweller would come to the house of the client, carrying his work-table and all his tools, and execute his commission under supervision. Since women were not (lee to go out often, this arrangement allowed ladies of the household to gather and spend time together; furthermore, an eagle-eye was kept on the jeweller, ensuring that there was no theft of gold and that gemstones were not switched with those of inferior quality. The jeweller built up generations of trust working with one family, and as the craft passed from father to son, so did his clientele.

Since so much of Indian jewellery was worn for superstitious reasons and for its apotropaic powers, craftsmen always paid the closest attention to detail and workmanship. This was based on a belief that the wrath of the unknown, which the jewel was meant to deflect, could also befall the maker if due attention and care were not accorded to technical details. Since gold was a prized commodity, every effort was made to minimize loss. The gold workshop was well-organized and meticulously supervised. The entry and exit of unauthorized people was strictly regulated. Tools and unfinished articles could not be carried out of the workshop. 

Large foiled emeralds and spinels are embellished with birds and flowers outlined with gold wire, enamelled and set with gems. The Arthashastra even stipulates that "artisans doing the work of setting in gold, bead-making, plating and gilding and ornamental gold, and blowers, servants and dust-washers, shall enter and leave after their garments, hands and private parts are searched." The superintendent of the workshop closely monitored the workers to prevent pilferage. He was advised to watch out for strategies such as a "sudden movement of the hand, the weights, the fire, the wooden anvil, the tool-box, the receptacle, the peacock's feather, the thread, garment, talk, the head, the lap, the fly, attention to one's person, the bellows-skin, the water-platter, and the fire-pan, these he should know as the means of pilfering." Gold dust was meticulously collected and weighed to reduce the amount from the total weight of the finished ornament. A caste of gold-separators, called Jalagadugu in the south and Niyariya in the north, collected the sweepings, ashes and refuses from outside goldsmiths shops and painstakingly sifted the gold.


The absence of a system of hallmarks coupled with the practice of alloying gold with other metals to render it stronger led to cheating. Hence it became standard practice for jewellers to test the purity of gold on a touchstone before accepting old ornaments to be recycled into new pieces. The metal or ornament to be melted is rubbed on a soft black touchstone called kasanti. The purity is established by comparing the streak thus produced with a streak of standard gold.

The magnificent kali-tiru worn by Chattier women on their wedding day is substituted by these simpler, but no less exquisitely crafted, pieces for everyday wear.
Goldsmiths were conversant with the various properties of gold and the method of mixing various metals to obtain different hues, colours and strengths. They could classify gems and were adept at cutting and piercing stones. This is borne out in various ancient texts, including those by Kautiiya and Patanjali. In the 2nd century literary work, the Shilappadikaram, there is a reference to the categorization of diamonds into four 'castes' on the basis of the colour of the stone, and a listing of the different kinds of flaws in a stone, namely "kakapada, kalanka, bindu and rekha."1" Indian texts on gemmology recognize many categories of diamonds, based on their characteristic properties. "Good diamonds were supposed to be ujjala or bright, adosa or flawless, amala varitara or free from impurities and transparent like water. Rainbow like colour, ambudendradhanuh was a desirable property."

The beginnings of such technical expertise were most likely gained in the flourishing markets of the gem-trading centres of south India, where special streets were inhabited by dealers selling gold and varieties of gems, and jewellers crafting items of adornment. The first references to the qualifications of a gem specialist arc in the 6th century text, the Agastimata, where he is called a mandalika. The Rayanaparikkha, dating to 1315, reiterates the credentials of the gem appraiser, an expert who determines the value of the gem and functions as an intermediary between the seller and buyer.

Worn on elongated ear lobes, this light thoda or thodu, measuring no less than 9 cm in diameter, is made from sheet gold worked in repousse with geometric and floral designs. The 11th century inscriptions in the Rajarajeshvaram temple at Thanjavur detail the classifications adopted by gem experts. Pearls were graded on the basis of quality and shape, to include round pearls (vattam), polished pearls (oppu muttu), small pearls (pala muttu), pearls of red water (sivanda neer), pearls of brilliant water ( kuhrnda neer), pearls with lines (varai), pearls with red dots (kurn), pearls with wrinkles (tirangal) and twin pearls (irrattai muttu). Diamonds and rubies are similarly classified; with smooth edges (matta tarai vayiram), flat and smooth edged diamonds ( matta tarai sappatti vayiram), spotted diamonds (porivu), red-spotted diamonds (rakta-bindu), pure diamonds ( tooya ayiram) and round diamonds (urulai vayiram); a smooth ruby (komalam), bluish ruby (neela-gandhi), unpolished ruby (talam), ruby with flaws (trasam), and so on.

Writer – Usha R Bala Krishnan & Meera Sushil Kumar

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