Book Review: Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert
In 2009, Thomas K. Seligman, director emeritus of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, began research on the Thar of India with a focus on the soni caste of artisan jewelers. As Mr. Seligman’s research progressed, he proposed an exhibition featuring the work and stories of several individual sonis from Jaisalmer, in Rajasthan. Though many of the jewelers are highly skilled craftsmen, traditionally they do not sign their work; The study and exhibition, which would be co-curated by Mumbai-based jewelry scholar Usha Balakrishnan, would prove to be a unique opportunity to highlight these artists. This volume accompanied the exhibition.
In the book’s first chapter, “From Metal to Ornament: The Language of Jewelry,” Ms. Balakrishnan outlines a fascinating history of the region while explaining that the very nature of what jewelry represents in Indian culture has resulted in gaps in its history. For example, Hindus are traditionally cremated and their jewelry recycled within the family rather than being buried with the original owner. Also, constant migration of communities resulted in similar jewelry designs appearing in vast geographical regions. These complexities make a linear study extremely difficult. Indeed, Mr. Seligman’s study eventually became, according to folklorist Pravian Shukla, “the methodical documentation of the present in order to capture complete one moment in time.” Ms. Balakrishnan explains that there are three distinct categories of Indian jewelry: gold set with precious gems made for royalty and the very affluent, jewelry crafted primarily from silver, and finally tribal adornments made from base metals and materials such as shell and feathers. All are made by the soni, or jeweler. (The the surname Soni is common in Rajasthan to those in the jewelry-making trade.) She also discusses the deep significance of various forms of jewelry such as the hasli, a torque-type necklace that signifies a woman’s betrothal, charms that attract good luck, and pieces that fend off the “evil eye.”
The second chapter, “Four Sonis from Jaisalmer,” is a detailed examination of four of the many jewelry making families of the region. The family of Govindlal Soni, interviewed by Mr. Seligman, carries on traditional techniques and styles passed down from father to son through many generations (typically the only aspect of traditional jewelry-making undertaken by women is stringing). The family of Govindlal Soni has developed keen business acumen that has helped them to grow. Dharmendra and Om Soni are brothers who also carry on a family business established generations ago. This family specializes in making gold jewelry, with some silver jewelry made for the tourist trade. Hanuman Soni and sons specialize in traditional-style jewelry made for local people. All the jewelers in this family have trained in gold work but prefer to concentrate their efforts on fulfilling the needs of locals for traditional, heavy silver pieces. They also make pieces that are ordered and stocked by other shopkeepers. Hari Om Jewellers, established by Hari Ram Soni, and now run by his sons, developed a distinct jewelry style known for relief engraving and cut outs. This family specializes in making commissions for tourists. Several nice examples of each family’s work are depicted, showing how each has developed a distinctive style of their own.
Chapter three, “Pure Serendipity: An Odyssey into the World of Indian Jewelry” details the chance occurrence that led Ronald and Maxine Linde to collect Indian jewelry. Their first acquisition, shown in a full-page photograph on the first page of the chapter, was a spectacular necklace of gold, rubies, pearls, and diamonds. The Linde collection represents a great depth and diversity of ornaments and numerous pieces from their collection, promised gifts to UCLA, comprised most of the exhibition. The Linde’s collection is unique and special, as many collectors of Indian jewelry tend to gravitate to the Mughalera, with its grand pieces set with gold and precious gems. The Lindes have collected such items, as well as the silver jewelry of the lower castes and miniature items made for the statues of gods and goddesses. Pieces shown that the reviewer found particularly charming were a simple, silver hansadi neckpiece and a lovely gold, jade, ruby, and diamond armband dating from the late 17th to early 18th centuries.
Finally, “Selections from the Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection of Jewelry and Ritual Arts of India,” is devoted entirely to showcasing items from the collection from lavish, large, gold necklaces and earrings set with diamonds, rubies, pearls, and emeralds to humble, but still lovely, everyday silver earrings and everything in between. Photographed in high-resolution detail and shown against white backgrounds, the jewelry pops from every page and is a treat for the eye.
This reviewer found the book fascinating and very informative, as it concentrated on areas not usually visited with regards to Indian jewelry: the creation of everyday jewelry for the local communities as well as the background, histories, and motivations of the jewelers that so often remain anonymous. This is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in Indian jewelry as well as anyone interested in traditional, indigenous jewelry forms.