Trea­sures from the East

Be­jew­elled Trea­sures from Mughal In­dia daz­zle Lon­don’s Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ART - By NOORAINI MY­DIN star2@ thes­tar. com. my

VIS­I­TORS to Lon­don’s V& A ( Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum) will be treated to an Aladdin’s cave of jew­els go­ing back to the In­dian Mughal era that gave us the Koh- iNoor di­a­mond and the glo­ri­ous Taj Ma­hal.

The Be­jew­elled Trea­sures ex­hi­bi­tion brings 100 ob­jects from the Timur Ruby to a 70.21- carat Gol­conda di­a­mond, from jewel- en­crusted swords to tur­ban or­na­ments.

Most of the col­lec­tion is owned by Sheikh Ha­mad Bin Ab­dul­lah Al- Thani from the Qatari royal fam­ily. The Queen has also lent three of her jew­ellery pieces in­clud­ing the fa­bled Timur Ruby; a set of huge spinel chunks on a neck­lace of pearls. Per­fectly matched, the pink hue of the spinels ra­di­ates off the pearls beau­ti­fully. The jew­ellery was never owned by Timur and the stones are not ruby but they are none­the­less spec­tac­u­lar. Taken from their trea­sury when the Bri­tish de­feated the Mughals, one of the spinels is en­graved with a minute in­scrip­tion to the Mughal em­peror, Ak­bar, who ruled from 1556 to 1605. Spinels, are red stones mined in Badakhshan in cen­tral Asia, val­ued by Mughal em­per­ors of the 16th and 17th cen­turies more than any other pre­cious stone.

Also from the Mughal trea­sury are neph­rite jade ob­jects in­clud­ing a dag­ger and scab­bard set with ru­bies and emer­alds in gold, from the late 16th centu be­long­ing to Mughal em­peror Shah Ja­han and a wine cup be­long­ing to his father, Je­hangir, made in 1607. The cup is dec­o­rated with fine Per­sian cal­lig­ra­phy, the cul­tural lan­guage of the court and the ad­min­is­tra­tive lan- guage of the Mughal em­pire. Neph­rite jade is a light- coloured jade im­ported from Khotan, on the silk road.

Ex­hi­bi­tion cu­ra­tor, Su­san Stronge de­scribed this as “ar­guably one of the best jade col­lec­tions in the world.”

Tur­ban dec­o­ra­tions in enamelled gold with di­a­monds and spinels and an ai­grette with fine, fluffy feath­ers, in plat­inum, stud­ded with di­a­monds and sap­phire, topped with fine white feath­ers ex­hibit the opu­lence of the In­dian em­per­ors and the su­pe­ri­or­ity of the im­pe­rial crafts­men.

A video of the an­cient kun­dan tech­nique em­ployed by the In­dian gold­smiths of the im­pe­rial courts to set gem­stones with highly re­fined gold is so in­for­ma­tive it made me feel like reach­ing for the near­est adult education prospec­tus for a jew­ellery course. The gold­smiths com­bined this tech­nique with the enam­elling tech­nique used by Euro­peans to cre­ate ex­quis­ite pieces like the tur­ban dec­o­ra­tion with the front adorned with gem­stones in kun­dan set­tings while the back is dec­o­rated with in­tri­cate enamel work. This tech­nique is still used to­day in the tra­di­tional jew­ellery of Jaipur and Bikaner.

The 70.21- carat Ar­cott II di­a­mond from the In­dian Gol­conda mines given to Queen Char­lotte in 1767 by the Nawab of Ar­cot draws gasps from vis­i­tors, over­shad­ow­ing a case of smaller di­a­monds.

In­dia had in­flu­enced jew­ellery de­sign in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, so I learn from the mod­ern jew­ellery on dis­play, like those from the house of Cartier and de­sign­ers like Paul Iribe which had in­ter­preted the tra­di­tional In­dian forms in Art deco style and set­ting In­dian- cut emer­alds next to sap­phires.

The ap­peal of Be­jew­elled Trea­sures is not only from the aes­thetic per­spec­tive but their his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance, even the love sto­ries. The jew­ellery that has peo­ple queu­ing be­fore it is the pea­cock brooch and hair or­na­ment from the French jew­ellery house, Mel­le­rio dits meller. It was pur­chased by the Ma­haraja of Ka­purthala, agjit Singh in 1905 on a stopover in Paris en route to a Royal wed­ding in Madrid. There, like a fairy tale, he fell in love with a 16- year- old dancer named Anita Del­gado and gave it to her at their wed­ding. It is an ex­quis­ite gold, di­a­mond and enamel pea­cock with blue, green and yel­low enam­elling for the up­per body and long, del­i­cate strands of gold feath- ers stud­ded with di­a­monds.

Del­gado re­turned to In­dia as the Sikh ruler’s fifth wife. An­other piece of jew­ellery in the col­lec­tion is an emer­ald brooch, which started its life as a dec­o­ra­tion for one of the Ka­purthala royal ele­phants. Del­gado was ad­mir­ing it and the Ma­haraja promised to give it to her if she learned Urdu suc­cess­fully. She learnt the lan­guage and was even­tu­ally given the emer­ald for her 19th birth­day. The emer­ald was later set as a brooch in Paris, but Del­gado of­ten wore it as a bracelet, neck­lace or hair or­na­ment.

Some of the trea­sures were spoils of war looted by the East In­dia Com­pany sol­diers from the im­pe­rial trea­suries chang­ing own­er­ship sev­eral times, some end­ing up in Eng­land. One of them, the golden tiger’s head finial from the throne of Tippu Sul­tan ended up in Wind­sor Cas­tle. Tippu Sul­tan, the Ma­haraja of Mysore, in the south­ern state Kar­nataka was a thorn in the side of the Bri­tish who were in­tent on seiz­ing Mysore and lay hands on its min­eral riches. Tippu Sul­tan was used to opu­lence and was known to fight with a sword en­crusted with beau­ti­ful and rare gems. A tough gen­eral who led his army to suc­cess against the East In­dia Com­pany on five oc­ca­sions, Tippu said that he would rather live a day as a tiger than a life­time as a sheep. He adopted the tiger as an em­blem.

Tippu Sul­tan was fi­nally killed de­fend­ing his king­dom in the siege of Seringa­pa­ham in 1799. His hexag­o­nal throne, be­decked in gold and gem­stones, was bru­tally bro­ken up and looted by the Bri­tish sol­diers. Sur­geon- Ma­jor Pul­teney Mein, an eye- wit­ness to the plun­der, later wrote “this gor­geous throne was bar­barously knocked to pieces with a sledge ham­mer.”

Of the eight gold tiger head finials dec­o­rat­ing the throne, three re­main, one of which was auc­tioned in Lon­don in 2010 for £ 434,400 ( at to­day’s rates that is RM2.5mil). For­tu­nately one of them, in the Queen’s pos­ses­sion, is also on loan to the ex­hi­bi­tion. The other ex­quis­ite piece, pre­vi­ously pre­sented to Queen Char­lotte, is a canopy dec­o­ra­tion from Tippu’s throne, of the myth­i­cal Per­sian Huma bird, the size of a pi­geon, with a long, upright tail like a pea­cock’s, made with gold and dec­o­rated with pre­cious stones. The neck is made of emer­alds and the body, of di­a­monds and ru­bies.

Be­jew­elled Trea­sures is part of the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum’s In­dia Fes­ti­val and ends on March 28.

Be­jew­elled sword from Hyderabad.

Anita Del­gado’s Pea­cock brooch in gold, di­a­mond and enamel. — Pho­tos: Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum

Spinels on a neck­lace of cul­tured pearls be­long­ing to Queen El­iz­a­beth.

Di­a­mond tur­ban jewel made for the Ma­haraja of Nawana­gar.

Ar­cott II di­a­mond pre­sented to Queen Char­lotte by the Nawab of Ar­cot.

Brooch set with emer­alds, sap­phires and di­a­monds by Cartier.

Gold tiger finial from Tippu Sul­tan’s throne.

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