The rock of ages

Updated: Sep 01, 2019, 08:07 IST | Ekta Mohta |

The foremost jewellery experts in the world are coming together to map the 5,000-year-old legacy of Indian jewels

Whether a royal or a peasant, when it comes to gold, both follow the same financial model: it's forged during celebrations and pawned during recessions. So, when India awoke to life and freedom, maharajas awoke to empty coffers.

Jewellery historian Dr Usha Balakrishnan tells us this at a Juhu coffee shop, where we're tracing Indian jewellery. As curator of auction house Saffronart's upcoming conference, Mapping a Legacy of Indian Jewels, Balakrishnan has been looking into royal collections as well as temple treasuries. Dressed in a rose quartz-coloured salwar kameez and a stately ring, she says, "In 1947, when the Indian union was formed, there were more than 625 princely states. They lost a lot of the land and the revenues from that land.

The rock of ages

Jewellery has always been portable cash. Even today in rural India, people invest in gold as savings. Several maharajas turned to their treasuries to support their large families, and many did get liquidated at that time. Having said that, there are still a lot of royal families who are holding on to important pieces. We see them at auctions in different parts of the world. But, it's a complicated matter and they don't want to publicise or showcase it."

In 2017, Balakrishnan convinced Radhika Raje Gaekwad, the Maharani of Baroda, to talk about her heirlooms at the biennial conference. In its second edition, it includes equally important names, such as India's "greatest contemporary designer" Viren Bhagat, and John King, from the Gemological Institute of America. Structured "Davos" style, every session has two speakers who complement each other. For instance, while historian Manu Pillai will wax eloquent on the treasury of Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Balakrishnan will hold forth on the road that connected the western Malabar coast to the eastern Coromandel coast. "I'm going to talk about Bijapur, Hampi, the Chola Empire in Thanjavur, the Nayaka empire in Madurai, and their temple treasuries."

Dr Usha Balakrishnan. Pic/Ashish Raje
Dr Usha Balakrishnan. Pic/Ashish Raje

The conference was initiated because not for nothing was India once sone ki chidiya. "There's never been a conference with a focus on Indian jewellery anywhere in the world. India is the greatest jewellery manufacturing nation of the world, and it was my dream and desire to do a conference here, and give an opportunity to Indian scholars to share their work." At the same time, she admits that we need "countless" conferences to understand India's accessories' legacy.

"It's in our blood. Adornment has been part of early man. When he was a hunter and hunted a tiger, he took the tiger claw and hung it around his neck because it was a symbol of his courage and valour. There were amulets, whether it was a shell or a bead, elephant hair or a beetle wing. There's so much of symbolism that is attached. In India, gold is a symbol of Lakshmi, a ritually pure metal. There is no puja that is conducted without gold in some manner. Even when a person dies, a piece of gold is placed on the body, because it is believed it is needed for the boatman, as payment, to take the soul from this world to the next. So, gold is very much a part of Indian DNA."

With 1,50,000 gold karigars scattered around the country, it is also very much a part of our artistic legacy: one enhanced by women. At the conference, scholar Deepthi Sasidharan is going to look at early photographs of women. "Because women and jewellery are inseparable. What do photographs tell us about the jewellery they are wearing, the design, the fashion, the manufacturing techniques? How was it important to a particular woman, whether she was a royal or a villager?"
We bet our diamond-studded earlobes that it was the same.

When: October 11 – 12
Where: Four Seasons Hotel, 1/136, Dr E Moses Road
Entry: Rs 15,000
Log on to: jewels.saffronart.com

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