Indian Country jewellery is among the most sumptuous and finely wrought in the world, while the subcontinent’s folk jewellery abounds in stunningly bold and powerful designs. The wide availability of gemstones, the centuries—old traditions of craftsmanship and the customs of a culture steeped in religion and symbolism all make for a wealth of adornment, to complement the rich textiles and bright colours of Indian dress.
The V&A’s collection is unparalleled in its size and range, comprising over 4,000 pieces and, owing largely to the scale of collecting in the second half of the nineteenth century, it is uniquely positioned to illustrate the remarkable diversity of materials used in Indian jeweler and the distinctive skills of its makers. It also serves as an important historical record, including examples of pieces made in accordance with traditions long since lost.
To interpret the social and symbolic connotations of jeweler is to appreciate the individual pieces on a much deeper level, beyond their undeniable surface beauty to the significance of their purpose, be it worshipping a deity or celebrating a marriage. Likewise, it helps to understand the varied techniques that craftsmen used, some of them — like the kundan technique to stone setting — exclusive to India, and to grace the impact of European tastes and techniques on Indian jeweler design. .
Nick Barnard has selected more than one hundred pieces from theV&A’s superlative collection to illustrate his subject. This book features stunning photography and recent research, breaking new ground as well as presenting a collection of rare and ravishing significance.
Nick Barnard is a curator of South Asian art in the V & A’s Asian department. He has specialized in Indian jewellery since 2000 and has carried out extensive research on this subject in India. He was a contributor to Encounters: the meeting of Asian and Europe 1500-1800 (V&A, 2004).
The Victoria and Albert Museum is uniquely important in the study of Indian jewellery. Its collection is unparalleled for its huge size and range, comprising over 4,000 pieces,1 and illustrates the remarkable diversity of materials used in Indian jewellery, as well as the distinctive skills of its makers and their intricate techniques, several of which are found only in the subcontinent. The collection includes imperial Mughal jewelled turban ornaments and thumb- rings of superlative quality, as well as magnificent south Indian gold work. There is a fascinating variety of rural jewellery, worn among forest and mountain tribes and desert nomads as well as farming communities: strikingly bold and elegant works in silver, massive brass and zinc anklets, delicate necklaces of lace and seeds -. And even the vertebrae of a snake.
The collection has important and very high quality pieces from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a small but significant group of ancient works from the last centuries BC to the first centuries AD. Such early pieces are rare survivals, because jewellery was frequently passed from mother to daughter and often melted down to be remade in more contemporary shapes.
The greatest strength of the collection, however, lies in material from the second half of the nineteenth century. This is a particularly fascinating period, for it represents the watershed when India’s jewellery was about to be permanently transformed. It marked the culmination of a tradition, before many of its aspects began to disappear, but as new influences from Europe were making themselves increasingly felt. As well as preserving a record of some forms and practices that have since been lost, the collection documents the new techniques and forms that were to change the tradition forever.
The collection is exceptional in having a very large body of closely datable material preserved from as early as the nineteenth century. Most of the jewellery was acquired between 1851 and 1883, and thus offers an unparalleled resource for comparison with similar but undated material. The great majority of the pieces also have recorded places of origin.
The collection is of enormous importance to the study of Indian jewellery. Modern western scholarship in the field began in the nineteenth century, and several pioneering works either drew heavily on the V&A’s collection or were written by individuals who had a close knowledge of it. One of the earliest books to include a substantial section on Indian jewellery was H.H. Cole’s 1874 A Catalogue of Objects of Indian Art Exhibited in the South Kensington Museum, which would be renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899. Even more important was the series of articles written for the Journal of Indian Art ond Industry (1906—9) by Thomas Holbein Hendley, who had spent twenty4our years as Residency Surgeon in the Jaipur States. This was the first serious attempt at a comprehensive survey of Indian jewellery, and it retains much of its usefulness today.2 Most of the pieces illustrated are from the V&A’s collection.
The story of how the collection was put together is described in the second half of the book. On the one hand, this story reflects big historical movements of the nineteenth century:
Imperialism, trade and the rise of the great international exhibitions and dynamic new museums. On the other hand, it owes much to the individual collectors and owners from whom many pieces originally came (among them a nabob, a viceroy, an explorer, scholarly civil servants and wives), and to the personalities of the staff who bought on behalf of the Museum, such as the charming and successful Caspar Purdon Clarke and his meticulous, artistic son Caspar Stanley Clarke. Taken together, they reveal much about the reception and influence of Indian
jewellery in Britain, especially during the Victorian period, and this in turn illuminates the history of the collection.
The geographical range of the present work is the Indian subcontinent apart from the Himalayas, whose jewellery is distinct and is covered in a recent book by John Clarke. This south Asian region now includes four separate major nations: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. As the concern of this book is principally with the period before Independence and Partition in 1947, it does not classify jewellery by national divisions, and sometimes refers to regions that culturally or linguistically straddled modern state borders (such as Bengal or the Punjab), or that were administrative units under British rule. The term ‘India’ is therefore often used as shorthand for ‘the Indian subcontinent’, and the city names current in the nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries have been used, for example Bombay and Calcutta rather than Mumbai and Kolkatta.3
In the captions, unless otherwise stated the places are in the modern state of India, whde dimensions are given as height/length x width x depth. In other cases abbreviations are given as follows: circum (circumference); d (depth); diam (diameter); h (height); in (length); w (width).
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