In a country once famed for its fabled jewellery there is not much left to validate those legendary gems and jewels.
In a country once famed for its fabled jewellery there is not much left to validate those legendary gems and jewels. Except for the Nizam’s Jewellery collection that lies with the Government of India. SHALINI SHARMA talks to art historians Dr Usha Balakrishnan and Deepthi Sasidharan about their new book Jewels of the Nizams that took eight years to publish. Their methodical hunt through museums and private collections around the world allowed the jewels and its owners to tell their own fascinating stories.
At a packed to the rafters event at Mumbai’s Prince of Wales Museum the city’s culture vultures are being introduced to the treasures of the Deccan’s Nizam of Hyderabad (always to be known to posterity as once the richest family in the world). Present to give the keynote address is GVK’s Sanjay Reddy, fast acquiring a name amongst international collectors and auction houses for his passionate and judicious buying of Indian traditional arts. As a museum creator and son of the Deccan, he gets to launch the twin books, Treasures of the Deccan, one of which is sub-titled Painted Visions by art historian Navina Najat Haidar and the other is Jewels of the Nizam by jewellery historians Dr Usha R. Balkrishnan and Deepthi Sasidharan.
The book on jewellery was to emanate accidentally from the cavernous rooms of Hyderabad’s Chowmahalla Palace when the Turkish born Princess Esra decided to restore the family’s palace, so that the people of Hyderabad could have a cultural reference point to the glory of the Asaf Jahi dynasty. The task of overhauling the then dilapidated palace and archiving its riches was handed over to the country’s most famous cultural impresario, Martand Singh, ‘Mapu’ to his legion of fans. Deepthi was part of the young team Mapu hired to start the mammoth task of culling out the treasures from dust covered sheets and putting it all together. She reminisces, “For two years we all stayed at the palace sorting and documenting ceramics, silver, crockery, cutlery, furniture, costumes (300 pyjamas, 400 khada dupattas!) and then this amazing treasure trove — a room that had 20,000 photographs of not just the men, women, children in the palace but also of visitors who came from across the world.
“The photographs were visual records of information of not just life in the palace and the zenana, but also about the treasures the Asaf Jahis possessed.” After Chowmahalla Palace reopened, the Nizam’s Jewel collection (349 pieces acquired for `217 crore) owned by the government of India were being simultaneously readied second time around in 2006, for public display at the Salar Jung museum. The Director asked the palace for help to document and curate the exhibition. Deepthi recalls, “The palace arranged for us to meet Hyderabad’s jewellers and it became an amusing ritual: Every time we asked a jeweller for any information about the jewels in the collection, out would come very dog-eared, pen-marked, well-used copies of Usha Balakrishnan’s iconic books on Indian jewellery Dance Of the Peacock and Jewels of the Nizams! Needless to say Usha’s books soon became our bibles too.”
In May 1999, Usha had been approached by the Department of Culture, Government of India, to document and write the catalogue on the jewels of the Nizams of Hyderabad that was lying with the RBI. She still recollects the high security under which they worked at those premises. Her regret was they were only given five days to document 329 astounding pieces of jewels. That frenetic effort resulted in her runaway bestseller, Jewels of the Nizams. So, how different is this book from the former? Deepthi, who is a partner at India’s premier art archiving firm Eka Resources, jumped at the opportunity to find connections. “Looking at the photographic material at Chowmahalla Palace we realised how much richer Usha’s book would have been if she had access to the same material. We immediately got in touch with her and started a dialogue. I even visited her in Mumbai and suggested she incorporate this information in a re-edition. But Usha said it would not work there and suggested a whole new book that we could collaborate on.”
Usha admits her elation on being shown those visuals by Deepthi, “The photographs took me into the palace where these jewels were worn and suddenly I knew the names of the people who wore them. I realised that in actual fact the jewels I had documented in my previous book was akin to standing outside the palace and looking at them.” Deepti told her back then, “The jewels and their original owners and those who wore them have to come together in a book and tell their story.”
They got Mapu and Princess Esra’s blessings for the project; the book has a dedication to the former who passed away two years back and a foreword by the latter. The book took eight years in the making. Amongst the three jewellery inventories within the palace that Mapu’s team uncovered, just one inventory alone listed 6,000 pieces of jewellery on it. The duo then plunged into an intriguing, fascinating and lavish jigsaw puzzle as the palace photographs were constantly scoured and matched against the jewels in not just the Government of India collection but with the Nizam’s jewels in museums and six private collections across the world.
Usha had worked at international auction house Sothebey’s auction as their jewellery expert for 10 years and that experience allowed her unfettered access into some very valuable and private collections. “I’d done a lot of documentation while with Sothebey’s and had tons of information about what was where in which collection in the world. One had built up a lot of trust in the field so I just reached out to my sources. We also discovered that the Nizam’s jewels had appeared in auctions and collections around the world but were not listed as Asaf Jahi, so we were able to fill up that lacunae too for the new owners.”
“Like this emerald baazuband (arm bracelet) featured in the book. Deepthi showed it to me in a palace photograph worn by the Nizam’s wife. I tapped into my memory reserves and then recollected seeing it in the Kuwaiti Al Sabah collection.” About the magnificent golden yellow diamond belt in the Government of India collection that had already featured in Usha’s previous book, “There I had mentioned that the belt looked European but was probably made in Hyderabad. One day while I was going through Henri Vever’s book French Jewellery of the 19th century I stumbled on a black and white photograph that looked familiar. I always read my research books with a magnifying glass. What popped out was this belt. In the book I learnt that the belt was made by one of the greatest manufacturer’s of jewellery in France, Oscar Massin.”
So I got hold of Massin’s diary where it was recorded that one day an aristocrat man (who in all probability was Salar Jung 1), walked into Massin’s workshop in Paris with a wooden bowl full of diamonds and asked him to make a special piece of jewellery for an oriental potentate. Massin did not disclose the name but now we know it was for the Nizam. When the pieces fell into place, it was a eureka moment for both of us!” And then the tale of the 35 carat pink diamond that was originally from the Nizam’s treasury and later sold to Van Cleef, who then sold it to Maharani Sita Devi of Baroda, then residing at Paris and feted as one of the great fashionista’s of Europe at that time. Van Cleef suggested she name the diamond after her son called Princie. Deepthi went scouring through palace’s archives and sure enough zoomed onto a photograph of a 10-year-old Mahbub Ali wearing the Princie diamond on his finger.
For both writers, who have separately had the privilege of documenting the government’s Nizam collection and have actually held those fabled pieces in their hands, the journey has been one of awe and emotion. Deepti who was hired by the government to document the mysterious Guruvayoor temple jewel collection, confesses, “I have held each of the Nizam’s gems in my hand to feel and experience its weight and sparkle.
“Maybe just the photos would not have made sense if I had not experienced that. Diamonds can sometimes appear just like stones when you see them but when you hold them in your hands you understand the madness that drives people to possess them and why kings have fought wars for them.” In the fabulous world of Indian jewels, the Nizam’s collection is assured of its premier place for posterity.
Usha proudly points to the fact that there are already two books out documenting the Hyderabad collection whereas there is not a single book on the jewels of the houses of Kapurthala, Baroda, Jaipur, Travancore or Mysore.
“These were wealthy states of India, very rich in jewellery tradition but those collections were lost and sold over time and now are impossible to document. Whereas Mir Osman Ali Khan had the foresight to put the family and state jewellery in trusts so when it comes to Indian archival documentation, the Nizam’s collection is impossible to match.” It’s no secret in the world of antiquities that the biggest buyer of Mughal and Nizam artefacts today are the wealthy Arab royalty. Both researchers acknowledge that much of their information was sourced from the Al Sabah of Kuwait, Al Thani of Qatar and Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art collections. Usha points out, “It’s ironical but the Mid-East potentates are so proud of the history of Indian jewellery and treasures. In fact they are showcasing them at famous international venues. On the other hand we Indians are doing nothing at all.” Referring pointedly at the Nizam’s Collection which after a brief display at Hyderabad’s Salar Jung museum, is now mysteriously gathering dust in the vaults of the RBI, she says, “It’s incredible that we have such a stunning jewel collection and the people of India are deprived of seeing it. There is no explanation for such indifference.”
They have a whatsapp group called fittingly Jewellery Chasers. Deepthi smilingly lets on a glimpse of it, “For eight years we have been chasing jewellery every day. We are obsessed. Any references in literature or any visuals that appear anywhere on jewellery, we upload on our chat and then like sleuths find a connection to what, where, who and how. It doesn’t always have to be serious. Even something like the vintage brooch that Sonam Kapoor’s husband wore at his wedding. It’s an antique art deco piece and we know from its design it was once definitely part of a bigger piece. One day we shall track the original piece and the context shall be unearthed.” If there is any regret it’s that they have enough information and visuals to fill 550 pages for this book but were requested by the publisher to reduce their current tome to 250. “Editing was a challenge,” they admit but one also suspects there is enough material and passion amongst the two for many more books on jewellery. Let’s just say this collaborative effort is the beginning of many tales of splendour and sleuthing.
Excerpt from the book
Jewels of the Nizams
If the Nizam’s status was proclaimed by his turban ornaments, belts, buttons, and swords, then the status of the women in the complex palace hierarchy was revealed by the quantity, quality, and kinds of jewels they wore. For the first time, the jewels are shown alongside photographs of the men, women and children whom they adorned; in many instances, the actual pieces from the photographs are shown. Pieces of jewellery scattered in faraway collections metaphorically come home and are reunited with royal members who once wore them. A carved emerald armband now in the Al Sabah collection in Kuwait, once served as a precious amulet for a begum; an emerald sarpech sold by Christie’s and now in the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, was wrapped around the dastar (turban) of a young Azam Jah posing in a family photograph with his father, Osman Ali Khan: and a magnificent ceremonial sword now in the Al Thani collection was probably held by Mahboob Ali Khan as he was invested with the power to rule and took his seat on the masnad of Hyderabad.
For more than two hundred years the Nizams ruled the Deccan virtually free of interference from Delhi, and the state of Hyderabad developed into the last bastion of Mughal culture in India a culture that endured in court etiquette, a treasury brimming with gems and jewels, a lifestyle of incredible opulence, and the sartorial splendour of embroidered silks and gem-encrusted robes. Treasures of the Deccan affords a glimpse into the splendorous court of Hyderabad. It explores the masnad, the seat of power and the grace of enlightened kingship of the sixth and seventh Nizams, Mahboob Ali Khan and Osman Ali Khan, respectively. It ventures behind the veil into the mahallat, the sacred space in the palace where the women lived in beautiful seclusion. Although Nizami culture was influenced by the Mughals, it established its own unique style. The restrained elegance of the Mughal aesthetic, the bold sensuality of the Deccani idiom, and European influences all came together in Hyderabad in the court of the fabulous Mughals of the Deccan. (pg. 22)
(Shalini Sharma has been a lifestyle journalist for two decades. She now works in heritage restoration through her company The Golconda Collective)