JEWELLERY IS TODAY often seen as a mere accessory, a wasteful one at that too. But in India, the history of jewellery also hints at the story of our civilisation. In India, jewels are not mere adornments, they are markers of identity itself. They tell of family stories and community backgrounds, of individual tastes and preferences. They showcase the finest Indian aesthetics and creativity, workmanship and artistry.
In our culture, ‘jewellery is an essential part of a woman’s physical reality’. As Indologist and historian Wendy Doniger writes in The Ring of Truth: And Other Myths of Sex and Jewelry: ‘On statues of goddesses (I know the South Indian bronzes best, but it is true much more broadly), the bracelets and anklets seem part of their skin, more a part of them than any garment could be; this is especially true of statues of nude goddesses, even of naked women, who often wear nothing but jewelry. One of the earliest images of this sort that I know comes from the ruins of Mohenjo-daro in the Indus River Valley (now in Pakistan), from a great civilization that thrived c. 2000 BCE. It is a tiny (10 cm) bronze image of an impudent, defiant dancing girl, totally naked save for a chunky necklace and an assortment of bangles.’
Even centuries later, we cannot think of the ‘dancing girl’ without thinking of the bangles that travel up her arm and the necklace that clasps her neck. The ‘dancing girl’s’ jewels amplify her brio, in some ways they make her who she is. Her jewels are not ‘accessories’, they are intrinsic to her skin and body itself.
Now, scholars and tourists, designer and connoisseurs alike have the opportunity to marvel at the jewels of our past. Founders of Jaipur-based jewellery house Amrapali Jewels, Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera, have opened the Amrapali Museum of Jewellery, a 6,500-sq ft space which is home to an eclectic and dazzling collection of rare jewellery and other artistic objects with utility value, which they have curated over the last four decades.
The ground floor displays items of beauty and adornment (silver and gold) for all parts of the body, from the toes to the head. Each showcase is dedicated to ornaments for a particular body part. Many of the jewels were also worn by men. Drawers below each case also contain objects of art, and can be opened on special request. The drawers are a way to display more objects in a limited space, and allow each viewer the agency to create his or her own story from the many creations.
The basement houses a range of silver jewellery and objects. With over 4,000 pieces in the collection, this is a museum which will leave visitors with a sense of pride and awe, as it helps provide context and consistency to our modern life. It also brings to the fore Amrapali’s own journey.
“We started collecting old tribal jewellery. But if you don't display it, it is a hoard. That is not good for society. We wanted to share and that is how the museum idea was born” - Rajiv Arora, co-founder of Amrapali
The jewellery house was founded in 1978 by Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera in Jaipur. Arora, who tends to be the face of the brand while his friend and partner Ajmera prefers the sidelines, recounts this journey. “When we started in 1978, it was with handicrafts as we did not have the money for jewellery. We had a shop in Chameliwala Market (which is still the gems hub of Jaipur). People started coming and showing us tribal silver. We realised we could do something interesting with it by adding coral, gems, turquoise. The hippies were our first customers because they are artistic and liked our pieces. Some of them are still our clients, 40 years later. We started with old tribal silver jewellery, then started using stones, gold, diamonds. We make jewellery that sells at flea markets in Goa and that sells at Harrods. The soul of our jewellery is very Indian, even if it shows a contemporary desire.”
Just as their brand started out small, the collection itself began with a khaas ki taati pandaan (betel leaf container), dating back to the 19-20th century, from Bikaner. The piece—made from silver and khaas—enjoys a pride of position at the museum, as it is the first object at the entrance. Arora says, “We had this small paan box, which we acquired in 82-83 with khus inside. We were struggling, but we realised that if we sold it, we would never get it again. We started collecting old tribal jewellery because our interest was always in Indian culture. But if you don’t display it, it is a hoard. That is not good for society. We wanted to share and that is how the museum idea was born.”
The collection at the museum is special because it sparkles with the taste of individuals rather than institutions. It does not provide you with a timeline of the history of jewellery in India; rather, it throws open the doors on a passion project that has been curated with care and wisdom over the decades. The collection includes personal items from nose rings to hookah spouts, slippers to hair ornaments, shrines to water sprinklers, beetle containers to miniature doll’s house furniture. In 2001, the partners displayed 450 pieces from their collection through the Crafts Museum, Delhi, for a show in the UK. The idea of a full-fledged museum arose from there. Between 2001 and 2017, they collected more pieces and threw the doors open to the museum in January 2018.
Most pieces date back to the 19th- 20th century, with a few dating to the 16th century. Arora says that in India, people give away their family jewels at three main instances; during weddings, when they want to sell old jewels and get new ones; after a death when they sell the deceased person’s possessions; and during famine and drought, which was especially frequent in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and when they need the money.
In his travels across the towns and villages of India, Arora has studied how jewellery is a marker of caste and community. Some of his travels proved fortuitous while others were damp squibs. He once travelled to the interiors of Orissa on the promise of an “egg-size cat’s eye gemstone” only to reach there and discover that the prized possession was agate and not cat’s eye. Another time he found himself at a Calicut refinery, and saved a sack full of ornaments that arrived on bullock cart to be smelted. In the rescued sack, he found all sorts of treasures.
The brilliance of many of these labour-intensive pieces, such as a pandaan (beetle box) from 18th century Telangana, made from filigree and gold plating, is the level of detailing and skill. The filigree is so intricate as to give the effect of translucence. Videos at the museum explain some of the painstaking methods of jewellery making. Visitors can watch the processes of soldering, hammering, bending, stamping that goes into the making of each small piece. This process has remained unchanged for centuries, and has been altered only in the last 50 years or so, says Arora.
In an interview soon after the publication of her memoir My Love Affair with Jewlery (2002), Elizabeth Taylor said of her many jewels, “Each one tells me a story.” Similarly, the Amrapali museum is home to some standout pieces, each with a fascinating story. All we need to do is pay attention.
These pieces pay testimony to both our cultural traditions and personal biographies.