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The treasury of the world

By Juliet Highet

All associated with Mughal emperors, maharajas and their courts, the Al Thani Collection is a marvel in its own right

Even Sir Thomas Roe, the somewhat condescending English ambassador to the court of Jahangir, was dazzled by the Mughal emperor’s jewelled possessions. In 1616 he wrote to the future King Charles 1 in London that Jehangir’s court was ‘the treasury of the world,’ the emperor ‘buying all that comes, and heaping rich stones as if he would rather build than wear them.’

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum held a spectacular exhibition of 100 or so literally dazzling pieces of jewellery, titled Bejewelled Treasures: the Al Thani Collection. This collection was loaned by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdulla Al-Thani of Qatar, to which were added a few special pieces lent by Queen Elizabeth. As Martin Roth, then Director of the Museum, said, these included “a marvellous jewelled bird made for the throne of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore.” When Tipu was finally defeated, his throne was broken up, one captain Marriott writing in 1799 that “only the jewelled finials, the huma bird from the canopy and a large tiger head from… the throne were left.” The tiger head finial of gold set with rubies, diamonds and emeralds is another loan from the Royal Collection.

The theme of the show was to highlight examples of jewellery and jewelled objects made in India or inspired by the arts of India. In particular, the emphasis was on the Mughal heritage. This overrode, though sometimes blended with ancient Indian traditions of jewellery making, including reference to Hindu cosmology, and moved towards a new genealogy influenced by Persian literature. Examples of two definitive techniques of Mughal gold jewellery that are still used today include Kundan, which is an inherited method, dating from the 11th century and unique to the Subcontinent; and enamelling introduced in the late 16th century, and still practiced in Jaipur today. Gold ornaments were set with precious stones on the front and enamelled in translucent colours on the reverse side. It’s fascinating that with enamelling so much beauty is devoted to the back of the jewel – to invisible parts known only to its wearer and maker.

Kundan, meaning ‘finest’ or ‘purest’, refers to the highly refined gold that holds gemstones in place without the need for obtrusive settings. A commentary on a 6th century CE Sanskrit text, the Arthashastra, mentions ‘lac’, a resinous insect secretion, which is an essential component of Kundan jewelled artefacts. These are hollow and given solidity by their lac core. Enamelling was probably introduced from Europe via Portuguese Goa. On his succession to the throne in 1628 Shah Jahan commissioned the extraordinary Peacock Throne, which had Persian verses in emerald green enamel on its gold panels, and enamelled peacocks on its gold canopy.

One of the most striking and significant characteristics of this collection is the number of unmounted precious stones such as the Arcot 11 diamond presented to Queen Charlotte of England in 1767. This huge diamond, one of two ‘Diamond Drops’ weighing 33.7 and 23.65 carats had been sent by the Nawab of Arcot, who controlled the famous Golconda diamond mines, and who was a loyal ally of the British. The Golconda mines were the major source of diamonds in the world, until the Portuguese began mining in Brazil from 1725 and South African diamonds were discovered in 1867. Fantastic stories swirled around these Deccan Indian mines, including the necessity of accessing them through coils of poisonous vipers. A famous light-blue Golconda diamond in the exhibition, the ‘Idol’s Eye’, weighing in at a stunning 70.21 carats, was owned by an Ottoman sultan, and later by the disgraced former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos.

The broad chronological range of the Al Thani Collection covering the early 17th century to the present day is unique in its field. The exhibition was presented in six sections, the first of which was The Treasury evoking the royal storehouses of the Mughal emperors. Out of 12 of Akbar’s storehouses, one was reserved just for unmounted precious stones of spectacular size and superb quality. Another storehouse was for jewelled artefacts, and The Treasury displays jewellery such as necklaces of golf-ball size diamonds, many multiples of perfectly graduated strings of pearls and large spinels. In the 16th and 17th centuries, spinels (often confused with rubies) were more highly prized than any other stone for their beautiful pink colour and transparency. Akbar’s precious stone treasury was divided into three groups, the first containing in metaphysics and of the sublime in art”. The second group held diamonds, emeralds and rubies. The third was exclusively for pearls. Ornamenting the body with jewellery was and still is of immense importance in Indian culture and precious stones had specific roles in spiritual life, associated with light, beauty and virtue. Donations have always been made to temple treasuries, the omission of sapphires due to a belief that they exert a malign influence. Jewellery is a major theme in Sanskrit literature, the colours of stones evoked through metaphors such as a ruby as red lotus, or the morning sun; beryls compared to water or a parrot wing; and sapphires had ‘the lustre of a dark cloud.’ The literature was particularly lyrical in describing the magnificence of courtly life. The second section of the exhibition was The Court showcasing objects owned by rulers such as Shah Jahan, whose famous architectural commissions like The Taj Mahal introduced a new decorative style, which still informs Indian crafts to this day. Shah Jahan’s architectural influence was very specific, particularly his palette inspired by white marble inlaid with red and green hardstone. Enamellers echoed that colour scheme. It was not until the 19th century that other colours were introduced, such as cobalt blue.

The Court section included objects like Shah Jahan’s dagger (1610–20), whose white jade finial was rare. It’s in the form of the head of a young European man wearing a ruff, created at a time when European influence on the Mughal court was strong, owing to the presence of Jesuit missionaries. Another Important exhibit in The Court section was a wine cup (1607–08) made for Jahangir, the earliest dated imperial jade piece. An object of such importance would probably have been presented to the emperor during the New Year celebrations. At this time the elite of the empire exchanged presents of great opulence and rarity, poets composed special verses, and artists and craftists revealed their new work.

The third section of the show was Emerald and Kundan. Film footage of jewellers in Mumbai and Jaipur was commissioned showing how these jewellery techniques are still practiced. The design theme mirrors the physical realities of jewellery making. Celine Dalcher, the designer, used the concept of a jewellery box, with each hexagonal shape reflecting the natural crystal form of an emerald.

The Age of Transition was the 4th section, showing the gradual absorption of European styles and techniques on Indian jewellery in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in Hyderabad under the Nizams. By 1883, 30 per cent of Indian jewellery was bought by Europeans and this new market gradually changed traditional ways of working. Additionally, British firms employed Indian jewellers to create work in purely European style. Open settings allowed light to shine through cut diamonds and emeralds, and European motifs began to appear in traditional jewellery. The Curator, Susan Stronge, noted that “Cartier’s splendid pieces in the exhibition echo his collection of Mughal and Persian artefacts, particularly Safavid. There was also a profound interest in Orientalism and Pharaonic culture.” The Parisian designer Paul Iribe was influenced by both Orientalism and the Ballets Russes. His juxtaposition of emeralds next to sapphires was a stunning new colour combination, very Indian but very innovative in Europe. A blue and green brooch in the exhibition in the swooping elegant form of a peacock was given to a Spanish dancer, Anita Delegado. At the age of 16, she was whisked away by Jagatjit Singh, Raja of Kapurthala, who had instantly fallen in love with her. Eventually she became his fifth wife and on her 19th birthday, as a reward for learning Urdu, she was presented with the jewelled peacock by her husband.

The closing section, Contemporary Masters, highlighted the ongoing influence of traditional Indian jewellery though reinterpreted in transformative modern idioms. For example, the jeweller Bhagat is also influenced by Art Deco. Mumbai (where he lives) is rich in Art Deco architecture. But he also picks out elements of Mughal architecture, such as pietra dura. Bhagat has moved away from the traditional heavy gold gem-encrusted Kundan style, but does select antique flat-cut diamonds or sapphires, which emphasise the Art Deco influence. The Paris-based firm called JAR creates small sculptures, sometimes evoking Mughal architecture, such as jalis, the carved screens through which women could see but not be seen. A brooch in the exhibition recalls the stylised tiger stripes on artefacts created for Tipu Sultan.


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