Mughal, Persian and Western fashions have influenced ethnic jewellery for years. While assimilating changes, Indian jewellery has retained its own identity and created a huge domestic market.
From time immemorial, jewellery has been an important part of festivals and celebrations. Gold, more than any other metal, has been used by artisans and crafstmen to make brilliant and exquisite pieces of jewellery. In India, gold jewellery has evolved from an amalgamation of various cultures, traditions and customs. At the same time, influences of foreign culture can be seen in designs. This has led to cross-cultural exchanges resulting in the creation of unique pieces of jewellery.
Indian jewellery has strong influences of the culture of the Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Armenians, Arabs and the Romans. In fact, history shows that King Hiramof Tyre and King Solomon established trade with India in 1015 BC through the ancient ports of Diu, Goa, Calicut and Kaveripattinam. India has always been the centre of a network of trade links for gold jewellery and precious gems which were brought here through land and sea routes.
Later, Persian, Mughal and English influences were seen in the work of Indian artisans. Mughals were obsessed with kundan jewellery which specialised in intricate work. It is said that Shah Jahan was a patron of the Kundan art. Under him, enamelling became a sophisticated process. Right from jewellery to imperial thrones, Kundan work embellished a wide range of products.
A group of artisans and craftsmen accompanied the Mughal emperors on their tours. They were assigned the task of recording any image that caught the emperor’s fancy. Later, images of birds, trees, animals and flowers were engraved on jewellery and other items. This benevolence towards arts and craft provided artisans with enough opportunities to showcase their talent.
The 1700s saw a blend of traditional designs with Western influences. However, Indian craftsmen moved beyond imitation to establish their own style. European influences were seen in items like rings, armbands and motifs. But styles like the European cameo art of carving jewellery never really took off.
Apart from the traditional Kundan jewellery with its enamelled backing, a work technique developed during Aurangazeb’s rule where the emphasis was on channel settings worked into the Kundan technique. Even the a jour setting a technique of setting table-cut stones into gold-encased floral frames and characterised by large gems set without a backing to enable light to pass through was an extremely delicate art perfected by 17th century Indian artisans. The a jour setting is perceived to be an extension of Mughul and south Indian techniques, but has its roots in Renaissance and Baroque Europe.
Some of the strictly traditional art forms of south India, Bengal and Orissa defied fusion. They managed to preserve their pristine beauty in craft and form. The nakkash art of south India is still unique and depicted in its naag chotis or serpent-braid ornaments for the hair and the repousse patterns on the udarabandha (waist-band) and the kangan (bangles).
The ethnic purity is also retained in Bengal’s enthralling creations in sheet-gold repousse, filigree and granulations a tradition in handicraft deeply rooted in the Shunga period of history. Orissa perfected the filigree craft to greate heights, which, in turn, established filigree as synonymous with Orissa’s ethnic jewellery design form.
However, enamel designs from India, with its traditional bias for a lavish mix of colours, appealed to the European market which started appreciating Indian talent for producing such complex and intricate designs.
Gradually western societies realised that Indian had a tremendous potential for manufacturing high quality gems and jewellery. This led to the opening up of a gateway for the formation of a multi-cultural jewellery manufacturing environment. Indian styles steadily gained inroads into the fashion-conscious western society. People were ready to pay premium prices for handcrafted Indian jewellery.
Even though flora and fauna continued to be the basic recognisable motifs for feature for jewellery designs, the peacock design gradually became the favourite. Designs with mythological forms like the dragon (makaras) were also popular. Encouraged by a positive response from the overseas market, Indian craftsmen started evolving complex designs. This positive thrust to creativity offered artisans the right opportunity to develop their talents and personal skills.
The inherent desire of the human mind to draw inspiration from Nature has always been a compulsive driving force for artisans. Even today, jewellery designers are fascinated with nature’s bounty, as it can be translated into unique objects of personal adornment. According to a popular saying: To capture the unpretentious glory of nature in a work of art is to capture a bit of immortality. Gold and gems were a source of enchanting visual metaphors to many classical Indian writers. For musicians, jewellery was a composition in their golden melodies. To the romantic, it was poetry in gold. And for generations of unnamed artisans, crafting gold is a way of translating their talent into exquisite works of art.