Many, many moons ago, the ring once glistened on a bride’s nostril; the bangles made music on a slender wrist. The golden flowers trailed down thick braids, strings of gems adorned the neck, anklets tinkled on pretty feet... The years have rolled by, the people have passed on, but the jewellery is still as arrestingly beautiful, with the patina of age lending them a new alluring mystique.
Exquisite, grand and meticulously crafted heirloom jewellery are works of art and cultural markers, tracing design histories down generations in different parts of the country. And an ode to these precious beauties is the freshly unveiled Amrapali Museum in Jaipur — a conscientiously curated and artistically displayed collection of priceless, pan-Indian heritage jewellery.
Passion & Mission
Conceived by men on a mission, to save and share rare designs in precious metals and gems with all, Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera, of Amrapali jewellery, have been sifting, sourcing and selecting unseen trinkets over the past 40 years, to create their labour of love. “Even the thought of losing such brilliant creations to the crucibles, for reshaping, was painful. Such exquisite craftsmanship would have been lost forever,” says Rajesh, sharing the moment when late at night in Calicut, somewhere in the 1980s, they chanced upon sacks of vintage jewellery being virtually dumped at the local jeweller’s kaarkhaana, for being melted and reshaped into new ornaments.
It was sheer serendipity as the duo sat down excitedly and sorted the sackfuls to buy the pieces they thought were exquisite. Having been avid students of history, Rajiv and Rajesh are closely knitted by their collective passion: to save and showcase ancient artistry in metals that reflect the beauty and grandeur of India. “We wanted to set up a museum, the first of its kind in the world, to showcase these exquisite pieces of jewellery,” they enthuse. Slowly, they began to put together a collection of jewellery that are works of art, and would be of interest to travellers, historians, students, researchers, fine art lovers.
The time, effort and capital investment by the two men over the years is evident in the wealth of pieces on display. “It is challenging, assessing the value of a piece when you get a phone call that gives you a ‘lead’ on the piece that is pawned or about to be melted and reshaped,” says Rajiv. “We have overpaid many a times in our desperation to get hold of certain pieces. There was no other option as it is one of a kind. Then again, often we have zipped off in the middle of the night to check out jewellery that has turned out to be absolutely worthless. So there have been hits and misses galore,” he says, with the seasoned ease of a born jeweller.
At the majestic gates of the 6,500 sq ft museum, a magnificent silver chariot, dating back to 20th century Gujarat, evocative of an elaborate, traditional Jain religious procession, greets you, setting the tone for the treasure trove that awaits you inside. “Gold and silver have always been held sacred by us Indians, owing to their association with the brilliance of the sun and the cooling rays of the moon respectively,” explains Rajiv. “More than simply being symbolic of the wealth and social status of individuals, earlier, since the jewellery was also portable, it functioned as security, could be encashed and therefore was mostly worn on the person for safekeeping.”
An impressive array of jewelled accessories in gold and silver are displayed on the first floor. But as soon as you enter, what catches your eye is the display of digital images on the screen: of the Maruti 800 the two men travelled in to reach far flung nooks to check out a piece of jewellery, the Ray Bans Rajiv wore, the small Nikon camera they carried to click pictures... A sort of visual memoir of the countless sojourns they made to the interiors of India.
There’s a regal multi-string necklace, shimmering in green and cut glass (“glass did not exist at that time, so it probably came to the country from somewhere else. The size of the necklace hints that it was used as an adornment for a statue possibly,” says Rajesh) dating to the 19th century. It is a dazzling array: from the silver araipatta (waistband) crafted in Calicut in 1960; finely detailed bracelets from Chittorgarh; intricate bajubands (armlets) from Central India; peacock pendants from Himachal Pradesh; gamkharu (cuffs) from Assam, braided, chiselled and hammered to perfection; tribal anklets from Malwa, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh; a rare silver sehra (groom’s crown) from Himachal Pradesh (“We selected this one from amongst four pieces shown to us,” says Rajiv); anklets from Sindh; silver hairpins from Goa and silver and glass beadwork borla (hair ornament) from 19th century Rajasthan. There’s a hasli (choker necklace) in silver blue enamelling from 20th century north India and bichwas (toe rings) and naths (nose rings) from Karnataka, dastband almas (anklets) from Telanganathe, a majestic kalash (18th century) from South India and Tibetan ear rings in silver, bamboo, coral, turquoise. A beautifully crafted silver sprinkler with Shiva Parvati finial gleams in silence.
What is truly international is the display. The concealed lighting is focused on the artefact in every niche, that either rests on the shelf or is suspended by a concealed hook and appears to ‘float’ against the uniform backdrop of grey fabric. “We visited international museums to study the kind of lighting employed in such spaces. Our sole objective was to focus on the objects. Though we would have preferred a velvet backdrop, it is tough to get rid of the dust, so we opted for grey fabric instead,” shares Rajesh, divulging that they have over 3,000 pieces of these imported lights for replacement in case of need.
There are backlit 3D renditions of the close-ups of the exquisite carvings on the objects that are interspersed with the display sections on the wall, making the visual tapestry range in tones of pebble grey and off white. Customised pull out drawers below the showcases have in-lit grooves that reveal more treasures within. “The idea is to keep changing the display so that you have something new to spot each time you visit,” adds Rajesh.
The wonder of Indian art, design and craftsmanship comes alive in the Gold Room that unveils a treasure trove of stunning pieces of old treasured Mughal, Rajput, tribal, temple jewellery crafted meticulously in the yellow metal.
Winking as the showstopper here is the jadai nagam (hair ornament) from Tamil Nadu, encrusted with rubies, emeralds and white sapphires. The bulak (nose ring) of the Bishnoi community of Rajsthan nestles next to the quaint thuria (ear plugs) from Assam embedded with rubies; and the mudichu, pambadam, thandatti (ear studs from Tamil Nadu. Especially arresting is the delicate diamond necklace inlaid in blue enamel with the words — “Humata, Hukhta, Huversta” (good thoughts, good words, good deeds) from the Avestan credo of the Zoroastrian faith. Crafted in gold, this Parsi necklace is from Hyderabad, dating back to 1929. The gold bajuband from Hyderabad, with rose cut diamonds and enamel work at the rear is displayed with a magnifying glass positioned to reflect the work behind. Just like the gold bajuband with Ramleela depicted in front and Krishnaleela carved at the back. “Some of the pieces like this jadai nigam from Tamil Nadu, have an equally exquisite rear, but the name of the family (that was traditionally carved into the jewellery piece) has been scratched out by them before selling the piece to us, for secrecy. As we have not ‘touched up’ any collectible before displaying it, we have not been able to position magnifying glasses to the rear for many such pieces,” explains Rajiv.
Artefacts of religious importance and those belonging to the vanity caddy are housed a level below in the bosom of the museum. Elements of shrines and worship abound here. The 16 visions of Trishala, the mother of Lord Mahavir Jain, shaped in silver outline the seated silver finery of the Jain tirthankara in the centre. Beyond the life-size ashtadhatu statue of Lord Vishnu is a staggering collection of artefacts. From the kamandalu (holy water flask dating to the 19th century) in coco de mer and silver — “the other kamandalu has crocodiles in silver on top, that suggests it was used by a sage on the banks of river Yamuna,” puts in Rajesh, to the gilded hookah (17th century) from Burhanpur and the khaasdan (betel leaf container) from Awadh enamelled in limpid blues and greens, thewa vases from Pratapgarh, an engraved chuski (wine flask) from 19th century Rajasthan and ruby-encrusted gold mojris and khadau, a quaint kettle and creamer bird duo — “Their beaks function as spouts to pour the tea from, and the tiny ivory markers cleverly insulate the handle from the heat as you use the kettle,” says Rajiv, highlighting the ingenuous craftsmanship dating to 1870 Kutch.
Then there are several revered specials like the Jagannath necklace in gold and turquoise, the Shrinathji pendant from Udaipur, the portable Vaishnavite shrine in rubies and rudraksha, Jain religious manuscript covers in gold. Surely they haven’t been able to retain all that they have bought? “Of course not. We have handpicked the best to showcase at the museum. Plenty of others we have bought and sold again, we do run a business at the end of the day,” says Rajesh.
The museum catalogues the jewellery vocabulary of every state in the country and traces the changing styles down the ages. There’s a chuski (wine flask) in the shape of two swirling courtesans, with the elixir to be drawn in through the horn of a bison — “Since the horn of the bison was believed to bring added vigour,” says Rajiv, sharing interesting nuggets. Past the silver kiwad (door duo), stands a section for personal accessories.
A vicious dagger duo lies within the length of the silver backscratcher with a jewelled hand (spotlighted by the magnifying glass). “I discovered this while personally cleaning the artefacts with Rajesh, as we always do. The concealed dagger slipped out. It must have functioned both as an ornament as well as an item for ensuring personal security for a princess probably or a lady belonging to the nobility,” says Rajiv.
Then there are silver cigars, chaupad (game of dice), pouches, combs, kajal dani, miniature furniture (“bought with great discretion from a Parsi family,” adds Rajesh), Awadhi ittradaanis (perfume box) that did the rounds of the courts of the Nawabs in Lucknow, intricate palanquin heads, a massive conch with Hanuman embellished on top (“it sounds a bugle that can be heard 20 kos away” shares Rajesh), standing statues of door watchguards that quietly function as ittradaans, fossilised shaligram in a beautiful silver belt, and an array of precious mangoes and paan ki gillori in silver arranged like cascading paisleys on wave-shaped hooks of iron and aluminium.
“We wanted to create a visual rhythm with these odd shaped mangoes in thewa, minakari, filgree, sourced from different parts of India. The hooks were made by us in our factory,” they share.
Ode to Indianess
Beyond stands rather beatifically a holy book rest, carved out of a single slab of mutton fat jade. “The name comes from the pale colour of ‘mutton fat’ as usually jade occurs in green,” says Rajiv. There’s a gentle glow to the jade — a quiet inner light.
As one’s gaze travels to the left, one sees gold and silver textiles mounted on the walls — a rich array of Pichwai and kalamkari heirloom textiles, with ornamental details in silma sitara, zari, zardozi. “These are dimly-lit because constant exposure to light weakens the fabric,” explains Rajesh.
The museum, the first of its kind in the world, celebrates our beautiful legacy of shringar rasa, ornaments that Indian women have worn down the ages to adorn themselves. Pieces treasured, gifted, worn with pleasure and pride, lovingly cared for, handed down to daughters. Artefacts, both majestically regal and everyday pretty, that made life beautiful. With more than 4,000 handpicked artefacts on display, this is a beautiful ode to the decorative arts and a celebration of Indianness....