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Golden bird of the east: Celebrating Indian craftsmanship

A visit to the Alamkara; The Beauty of Ornament exhibition at the National Museum's newly-reopened jewellery gallery makes you feel faint: there is so much to wonder at, so many golden historical strands to grab! The fantastic pieces exhibited offer a glimpse of India's rich tradition in the decorative arts.

art and culture Updated: Nov 16, 2014 17:58 IST
Manjula Narayan
indian jewellery

Alamkara-encourages-visitors-to-place-their-own-tastes-in-ornamentation-in-context-and-to-appreciate-the-great-skill-of-Indian-craftsmen-Photo-National-Museum

A visit to the 'Alamkara; The Beauty of Ornament' exhibition at the National Museum's newly-reopened jewellery gallery makes you feel faint: there is so much to wonder at, so many golden historical strands to grab, so many exquisite aesthetic traditions evident in the 240 pieces displayed.

Like a hallucinogen that transports you to a liminal astral plane, a stoner's glittering paradise that knows no hunger, unhappiness and death, this show takes you, for the brief hour that you spend there marveling at each piece, to an India devoid of grime and poverty, an India suspended in that time in Siddharth's consciousness before he awoke and set out to become the Buddha, a gilded subcontinent strewn with precious stones.

"For ye have the poor with you always," said Christ but this new gallery of the museum's decorative arts wing almost makes you believe that poverty is a modern invention.

Curated by Usha Balakrishnan, Alamkara draws your eye to the agate necklaces of Mohenjo Daro (that display an almost hippie aesthetic) and make you ruminate on the minimalism of the twisted gold wire rings of Greco-Indian Taxila and the contemporary appeal of their belts fashioned from rows of golden fish, the enduring belief in the talismanic properties of wearing statuettes of deities in precious metals on one's person, the ancient southern obsession with gold, and the magnificence of the northern baroque of the Mughal and Rajput courts.

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From talismans featuring deities to embellished ornaments, each of the pieces displayed at the National Museum speaks of India's rich aesthetic traditions (Photo: Saumya Khandelwal/ HT Photo)

The National Museum has the country's largest repository of jewels and this gallery will astound everyone from students of fashion, serious historians and experts in the decorative arts to those keen to rush back to the family jeweller with a picture of a piece that simply must be reproduced.

Of course, some of the pieces are hideous in their ostentation: the super-sized gold tali or mangalsutra from 19th century Chettinad surely must have rendered some young bride severely spondylotic; one diamond, enamel and pearl encrusted neck piece from Rajasthan could have been part of a suit of armour; and a solid gold and enamel tea cup makes you glad the privy purses were abolished.

But there are many more delicately crafted pieces that still appeal across the ages, including the gold, white sapphire, and pearl nath or nose ring from 19th C Maharashtra, the gold, orthoclase and feldspar hair pin from 1st C CE Sirkap, and the pearl, diamond and gold jhumar from late 19th C Lucknow that was once probably just another item in a famous courtesan's jewellery box.

Alamkara encourages visitors to place their own tastes in ornamentation in context and to appreciate the great skill of Indian craftsmen. The exhibition might feed the nostalgia for various imagined glorious pasts but its success lies in its certain ability to act as a spur to future creativity.