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Talis, Nupur, and Padukas
A Collector's Eccentric Passion for Indian Jewelry
by Julie Rauer
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Eclecticism defines the ravishing auric carnival of exquisite 17th through 19th century Indian jewelry on display at the Asia Society in New York City, over 150 pieces from the Susan L. Beningson Collection, a delicate balance of rigorous scholarship and sublime eccentricity. Too often, exhibitions culled exclusively from the holdings of a single collector risk laboring under the insistent duality of inspired individualism versus aesthetic provincialism, the promise of fascination undermined as much by mundane issues of personal taste and professional affiliation as by the passionate endeavor of collecting thwarted at its uppermost echelons by financial advisors blunting the adventurous impulse. Smart choices and predictability were never the genesis of startling collections.
a curious twist—with much credit given to Ms. Beningson’s
unique eye—Asia Society’s gold necklace with square crystal
pendants (North India; 19th century) eschews the usual dazzle of
northern design aesthetics for poetic, almost Spartan, simplicity; five
clear crystal squares hang from a gold fabric cord, each a luminous water
droplet contorted into crisp, geometric form, silent meditative pools
with the arctic clarity of moonstones captured in spidery gold frames
sparingly enameled with touches of red, green, and white. Garrulous nature
dominates the reverse, each decorated with a different tangle of singing
and squawking birds nestled in riots of floral plentitude set against
fiery red enamel backgrounds.
Literally cloistered in the core of Indian jewelry, and utterly unique to its craftsmanship, is lac, a substance given off by certain scale insects (Kerria lacca) which live on the sap of various fig trees and are indigenous to India. Natural lac, or shellac, is used in nearly every aspect of Indian jewelry manufacture; while being enameled or set with gems, an ornament is held in lac, sheet metal is placed over lac when crafting repousse designs, and the organic substance is used to fill the insides of numerous larger pieces, an essential element in buttressing their structure to holding their shapes.
While western jewelry constructions of
such robust size would usually be hollow, lac is the eccentric
heart of a gold tali around a lac core set with rubies (Tamil
Nadu; 19th century), an imposingly muscular marriage necklace with the
impenetrable air of an armadillo, aptly made for a wife on the occasion
of her husband’s auspicious sixtieth birthday. Ms. Beningson’s
periya, or big, tali bears remarkable similarity to another periya
tali (Tamil Nadu; 19th century) also in a private collection, sharing
the stylized ‘M’ form of two adjacent tiger’s claws
(pulippaltali, emblematic trophies of bravery and triumph) that
may have inspired the common shape. Missing its gold, serpentine link
chain and corresponding granulated hinge attachment beads, the Asia Society’s
tali transcends the specificity of a pendant, becoming a ruby
encrusted fortress symbolizing the halfway mark in a husband’s journey
Arguably one of the collection’s most wondrous pieces, gracefully straddling the line between quirky adornment and solemn grandeur, is a gold Chettiar tali (Tamil Nadu; 19th Century) with four life-sized, hand pendants (abstractions of the bride and groom’s appendages) jutting from radiant granulated beads. Usually a study in design symmetry—with each pendant a mirror of its partner flanking a single centerpiece—this particular tali is decorated with a pierced motif of birds on three pendants (where the “wrist” joins the bead), while the fourth bears the unmistakable figure of a buck.
Digested as a group, six silver anklets, all 19th-early 20th century, attest to both the peripatetic eye of their collector as well as the technical breadth and artistic range exemplified by Indian craftsmen. Safely under glass, the customary delicacy of Indian jewelry design is supplanted by menacing abstraction, the organic threat of metastasizing cells, ruptured membranes, percolating flesh, and violated bones; where traditional south Indian necklaces are genteel, manicured gardens glistening with the soft light of diamonds and rubies, these anklets are rampant nature charging with the madness of an enraged elephant.
One silver anklet (Kutch, Gujarat) has the highly refined, retro-futuristic lines and protoindustrial silhouette of a Noguchi sculpture yet to be conceived; this iconic piece of anachronistic hinges, mechanistic fluidity, and abstracted seaming possesses the weight of ages, calling to mind one of two dominant stone elements in Isamu Noguchi’s Sunken Garden for Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (1960-1964, Yale University).
Conjuring the disorienting cubist planes of Umberto Boccioni’s bronze sculpture, Development of a Bottle in Space (1913; Metropolitan Museum of Art), the silver anklet with two makara-faces and birds on rim (Baroda, Gujarat) is an ominous creature with the geometrical protrusions of a mace, darkly ornate and spiky in the manner of fantastical prison irons.
Even the lone child’s anklet is tangible incarceration, eclipsed though by the Herculean shadow of a silver anklet with silver balls and flowers (Maharashtra or Southern Gujarat). Blossoms adhered to the sinuous, hollow band are funereal discs with the ugly scent of cinereous metal, ending abruptly, engulfed by the ballooning mass of clustered gray balls that erupt as an infestation with the random grotesqueness of plague victims.
As nightmares soften to dreams, the anklets’ robotic threat cedes to a case of whimsical 19th century gold nose rings, vegetal forms dripping with clouds of biwa and seed pearls, semi-precious stones, and tiny glass beads. Orchestrations of intricate granulation and feathery tangles of gold wire spraying amorphous clusters of glittering scales from structured wings, several nose rings suggest abstractions of Garuda, Vishnu’s mount and mythic bird-man hybrid. Ethereal King of birds poised in flight across the grounded architecture of the human face.
Mortal passion swirls around Krishna, the supreme lover and presiding deity of the toilette, theme of still another idiosyncratic section of “When Gold Blossoms”. Epitomized by an ivory and gold comb with relief of lovers and ruby knob (Karnataka; late 18th century), this collection of personal grooming objects speaks purely of luxury over pragmatism. Framed by a meticulously carved border, two lovers caress in sumptuous ivory grandeur atop a gold comb sprouting a miniscule handle, their ardor (most likely Krishna’s) mirrored by a pair of gold birds perched above, tails defining the boundaries of devotion with dramatic plumage. Crowning this passionate shadowbox of intimacy is a single, central ruby that glows as a ravenous heart.
Below the ornate comb and lurking in the most visually quiet corner of the toilette grouping is a miniscule gold and enamel collyrium (the black cosmetic used to outline the eyes) (kajal) container (surmadani), a marvel of both engineering and enamel artistry no larger than a lima bean. Compelling and unique, a diminutive gold spring button and opposing hinge float amongst cerulean and ultramarine curlicues of vines and scarlet flowers, bisected for functionality by a gold seam no wider than a thread.
Singularity either passes unnoticed or struggles for air, despised and hunted, in a world increasingly uncomfortable with and fearful of genuine individuality. Collectors drawn to oddities, deviant children, the brilliant creations of past generations—gathering the curious and sublime, fostering curatorial purity with deeply personal initiatives and sheer love of the work—have the potential to become keepers of the exceptional.
Copyright © September 28, 2004
asianart.com | When Gold Blossoms main exhibition | exhibitions