| When Gold Blossoms main exhibition | exhibitions

Talis, Nupur, and Padukas

A Collector's Eccentric Passion for Indian Jewelry

by Julie Rauer

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Marriage necklaces, anklets, and sandals for the Gods. Elaborate gold pendants, each the mass and form of a child’s grasping hand, erupt from tubular, granulated beads flanking the talismanic centerpiece of a South Indian tali, a marriage necklace equally formidable in both scale and symbolism. Massive silver anklets, startling icons of immaculate modernism, evoke the refined minimalism of Noguchi sculpture. Diminutive sandals, gift to the Gods or possibly worshipped as the feet of Vishnu, are paved with a delicate net of diamonds and rubies rising from their soles.

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.

Proscenium for bravura technique, sumptuous materials, ingenious craftsmanship, and omnipresent spiritual and mythical components, “When Gold Blossoms: Indian Jewelry from the Susan L. Beningson Collection”, exudes the veritable breath of India—from hidden gardens to exotic core. Although the exhibition features predominantly south Indian jewelry, a case of north Indian pieces whispers of the subtlety hidden behind the splendor; against the wearer’s skin and hidden from all. Lavish diamond and emerald necklaces, row upon row of gems throwing light, harbor achingly delicate enamelwork (hallmark of northern jewelers’ exacting artistry, and reflection of a culture that revels in the unknowable, camouflaged forms and faces in paintings, and intricately carved temple figures tucked into the darkest, remote corners) of relative modesty on the reverse—buds and vines, birds and roses, leaves and poppies. Foliage graces the backs of pendants, reverse of armbands, and insides of bracelets, with even the grandest displays of wealth enriched by concealed enameling, or minakari, which evolved into the penultimate symbol of the Mughal vision of ‘Paradise on Earth’.

Even an astounding 18th century ruby, emerald, diamond and gold sarpech (turban ornament) replete with carved emerald birds perched above gems the size of robin’s eggs, once owned by the Maharajas of Patiala before making its circuitous way to Sotheby’s, is decorated with polychrome enamel on the reverse, invisible artistry for the cognoscenti. Enameling is treasured even beyond the intrinsic worth of the stones in a piece by true connoisseurs of Mughal jewelry.

In 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.

Quintessential collector, patron, and irrefutable arbiter of artistic taste and trend, Shah Jahan, passionate lover of gems and architecture, elevated enameling to a highly refined craft that adorned not only jewelry but also decorative objects, game pieces for Chaupad, swords, and imperial thrones, culminating in the royal librarian’s record screen blanketed with enameled inscriptions. Fanatical gem connoisseur and learned student of world literature and philosophy, Shah Jahan personally designed the most renowned jeweled object in history, the legendary Peacock Throne, completed on March 20, 1635 an astounding seven years after the selection of its first jewel. Surrendered to the Persian conqueror, Nadir Shah, and eventually dismantled, probably by marauding rebels, over one century after its creation, the only evidence of the Peacock Throne is gleaned from artists’ renderings. Gazing at a page from a Badshah Nama manuscript, Emperor Shah Jahan on the Peacock Throne (Mughal; dated 16th January, 1640; San Diego Museum of Art), one can only be stunned into silence by the ultimate collector’s shrine.

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 through life.

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 | When Gold Blossoms main exhibition | exhibitions