The five-month long exhibition Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert held from February 19th to June 18th at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, USA, spotlighted more than 160 works of art set against the 5,000-year history of jewellery making across the Indian subcontinent.Enduring Splendor was guest co-curated by Thomas Seligman, director emeritus of the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, who conducted research on sonis (goldsmiths and silversmiths) during the last eight years, and Dr. Usha Balakrishnan, a renowned independent scholar of Indian jewellery based in Mumbai.
This is one of the few exhibitions that took a holistic view of the symbiotic relationship shared between the artisan and the artistry, between jewellery and society, artist and jewellery, and artist and society. Drawing on recent field research carried out in the city of Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, a flourishing centre of contemporary jewellery production, the exhibition explored the lives and work of sonis, and the Fowler Museum commissioned new silver works from four contemporary smiths, who executed and transformed traditional designs and techniques of manufacture in distinctive ways. These newly commissioned artistic renditions, contextualised by a survey of 19th- and 20th-century jewellery types, are still worn by rural men and women from Rajasthan and Gujarat.
These exemplary types—including earrings, anklets, bracelets, and necklaces—are borrowed from the Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection, one of the most comprehensive collections of Indian jewellery in the world. Ronald and Maxine Linde’s aim in assembling an encyclopaedic compendium of Indian jewellery is nurtured by the hope that their collection will help to shape the study of Indian jewellery, as is illustrated by Enduring Splendor.
The hypnotic allure of the arts and crafts associated with Rajasthan needs little introduction. Situated on India’s western border, the Thar Desert was for many centuries the gateway to India. Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Babur, Alexander the Great and the Greeks, and early European visitors brought their influence to bear on the region. The land, a melting pot of several cultures, was heavily influenced by the changing political and economic environments of those times.
According to Dr. Usha R. Balakrishnan, “India is a land that is historically ancient and geographically vast. However, Rajasthan and the Thar Desert, also known as the Great Indian Desert, that is the focus of the exhibition, is particularly special. It is here that some of the oldest and most historic forms of ornaments have been preserved. From Afghanistan, Sindh and Baluchistan, nomadic tribes travelled into the Thar Desert and settled down as pastoralists. This exhibition was about the beautiful jewels of these peoples—the warrior Bhils and Gujjars, the camel-breeding Rabaris, the Jats, Meenas, Banjaras, Meghwal and Kalbelias and the enduring splendour of jewellery forms that have remained practically unchanged over centuries.”A section of the exhibition was dedicated solely to the commissioned work of four sonis from Jaisalmer, namely, B.D. Soni, Dharmendra Soni, Hanuman Soni and Roopkishor Soni, and included video documentation of each at work using traditional tools and techniques of the ancient Indian tradition of jewellery making.
Traditionally, the act of manufacturing a piece of jewellery is sacred, and that makes every piece unique and induces craftsmen to remain anonymous. By interviewing the jewellery makers, co-curator Thomas Seligman captured the signature designs of the artists, their business acumen, and adaptation to fluctuating material costs, global markets, or family aspirations— challenges shared by business-owners and artists
Balakrishnan comments, “Jewels are not merely objects of femininity; they dispel anonymity, they proclaim caste, religion and ethnic identity, and even unequivocally communicate an individual’s region of origin. This is particularly the case among tribal and pastoral communities. Massive silver vadlo and hansli torques are worn by Rabari and Fakirani Jat women in Gujarat and Rajasthan, while male members can be recognised by the single horse-shoe shaped bawaria earring and the thorny gokhru. Strikingly abstract thandatti and pambadam are unique to Vellalar women in rural Tamil Nadu, and large rings joined with faceted beads known as mekkamotiram are worn on the helix of the ears by Syrian Christian women in Kerala. The fabulous kali thiru marriage necklace is a trademark of the Natukottai Chettiar community in Chettinad. Devotees of Shri Nathji wear pendants bearing an image of the god. In fact, for women of the Bonda tribes of Orissa, and Nair women in 19th century Kerala ornaments and costumes merge and become one with the body. Jewellery functioned almost like clothing – row upon row of elaborate necklaces covering the entire chest.
“Gold and silver are the quintessential metals of Indian jewellery. Both were prized for their intrinsic value, coveted for their luminosity, and revered for their ritual purity. While the jewellery of the rich and affluent combines gold and gemstones, the language of folk jewellery is expressed primarily in silver. Gold is a symbol of the sun and fire, and a vehicle of prana or life breath. It is synonymous with wealth and symbolises Goddess Lakshmi. Silver is a symbol of the moon and water, both of which play a very important role in the life of nomads who travel by its light and are guided by the stars as they cross the desert at night; and water is a precious and scarce commodity. Both gold and silver are versatile metals, malleable and ductile; small amounts can be worked with great versatility and transformed into beautiful ornaments. Importantly however, gold and silver can be liquidated for cash in times of need.”