Last Monday, the Capital witnessed one of the most significant exhibitions at the National Museum: culture minister Mahesh Sharma inaugurated an exhibition that has on display 173 rare jewels and jewellery pieces from the collection of the Nizams of Hyderabad. Titled Jewels of India: The Nizam’s Jewellery Collection, and on view until May 5, this is the third time that the National Museum has put on display precious pieces such as
There is heightened anticipation about the collection. Eminent jewellery historian Usha Ballakrishnan calls them the ‘Crown Jewels of India’. At the National Museum, there are two small rooms of infographics about the Golconda diamonds and the process of stone-cutting and enamelling, that prepare you for what lies ahead: A strong room vault with a significant Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) presence. Going past the guards, one is surrounded by the best bargain the Government of India has ever negotiated — 173 pieces of priceless jewellery that were purchased in 1995 for Rs 218 crores, from two trusts, the Nizam Jewellery Trust and the Nizam Supplemental Jewellery Trust, that were set up by the last Nizam of Hyderabad, to safeguard the jewels.
The displays are arranged along the perimeter of the room. All except one — the famous and fabulous Jacob diamond that weighs 184.75 carats and takes pride of place at the centre of the room in a lone revolving case, for everyone to marvel at. Social media has widely criticised the bed of nails the splendid diamond was being made to rest on. In fact, writer-historian and ardent Instagrammer William Dalrymple had called it ‘jugaad’ because the magnificent diamond was propped up, in a somewhat undignified manner, by a bunch of unconcealed nails which marred the experience of truly appreciating the stone in an otherwise ‘wonderful and most welcome exhibition’.
Incidentally, the National Museum has shown this collection twice before: Once in 2001, and then again in 2007. The collection boasts gems and jewels made of the finest quality Golconda diamonds; Colombian emeralds; exquisite pearls from Basra and the Gulf of Mannar; Burmese rubies and spinels, and a few excellent Navaratana pieces. These priceless jewels have been fashioned into necklaces, bangles, belts, armlets, rings, bazubands, toe rings, sarpeches, pendants and even cufflinks — a testament to the opulence and grandeur of the Nizam’s court.
A rich photographic archive of the Nizams and their begums, a large portion of which was shot by Raja Deen Dayal, now lies in the opulent Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad. Large prints of these photographs supplement the displays, to help one understand how and by whom these jewels were worn. Some pieces, such as the Sarpech Bachkani Almas Kanval have fascinating stories. This luxurious sarpech was made for the child Nizam Mir Mahbub Ali Khan, who became the Nizam at the age of three. The jewellery itself is nestled in maroon faux-velvet with gold-thread borders.
While the exhibition is undoubtedly a feast for the eyes, this collection of jewellery is significant primarily for the quality — and sheer volume — of the gemstones, which is a gemologist’s dream. But compared to other great jewellery collections across the world, like those housed by the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Khalili Collection, the Al-Sabah collection and more recently, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, it becomes evident that this exhibition is a spectacular collection of predominantly 18th and 19th century jewellery that was influenced by the European style. It does not necessarily take us back into the long-held tradition of Mughal and pre-Mughal jewellery designs, but it forms a significant collection that helps us understand how jewellery design in India was influenced by the coming of the British; and how stones were starting to be cut and faceted, unlike in the Mughal times when uncut stones were in fashion. It tells the story of changing fashion trends in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It’s hard to tear your eyes away from the resplendent jewellery, but every now and then, you do want to look at the labels, which are all produced in Farsi. While it’s understandable that the curators did not want to burden the displays with heavy labels, it would have helped to at least have some information in English or Hindi. Though the labels were in the Roman script, they were spelt out only in Farsi words. Memorising the infographics might have helped, since some of them did list the various items of jewellery worn by men and women with their traditional names. Still, this exhibition is, without a doubt, a phenomenal display of jewels that the Indian audience is lucky to have the chance to view. Its success will ride, not just on the shoulders of its contents, but also on the display and curation, which leave a lot to be desired. Yet, for a Rs 50 ticket, this one is a real visual treat. —Avani Sood is a Delhi-based art historian and researcher. She has worked on several government of India exhibitions and loves all thing history and culture.