The fabulous wealth of the Nizams of Hyderabad is well documented, thanks to their lavish lifestyles, opulent palaces and an astounding array of jewels. Long the subject of much mystery and intrigue, the exquisite jewellery collection of the Nizam, which was hidden in the royal treasury for centuries, is now scattered all over the world.
A new book, Treasures of the Deccan – Jewels of the Nizams, co-authored by Usha Balakrishnan and Deepthi Sasidharan gives a glimpse into these jewels which were once accessed only by a handful of people. Featuring rare portraits from the archives of the Chowmahalla Palace and a handpicked selection of the Nizams’ jewels – one of the most outstanding collections of gemstones and jewellery in the world, and never-seen-before items from private collections — the book captures the history, romance, wealth and majestic lives of the Asaf Jahs of Hyderabad. Accompanying these pictures is the history behind those pieces, which gives insight into the craftsmanship and context of the jewels.
Both the authors have been known names in the world of art and culture. Usha Balakrishnan is a cultural capital consultant based in Mumbai and has previously written Jewels of the Nizams and coauthored Dance of the Peacock: Jewelry Traditions of India. Deepthi Sasidharan is a Fulbright scholar who has curated several Indian exhibitions for private and government collections, including those at the Chowmhalla Palace and Salar Jung Museum.
Usha says that her tryst with the Nizam jewels started when she was invited by the Government of India in 2001 to undertake a detailed study, document and publish the collection that had been acquired from the Nizam’s Trusts. “The spectacular historical collection with royal provenance made headlines around the world. My book Jewels of the Nizams featured all the jewels (375 pieces), with photographs of the Nizams to show the jewels in their historical context. Thereafter, I began identifying Hyderabad jewels from the Asaf Jahi court scattered in collections around the world,” she explains.
Over the years, she compiled an extensive database of these jewels whenever she came across a piece attributed to the Nizam or stylistically appeared to be from Hyderabad. She adds, “At the time of my documentation, the Chowmahalla Palace restoration had not been undertaken and the fabulous photographs featured in the present book had not yet been discovered. Upon their discovery and exhibition, I noticed that a lot of the jewels that I had catalogued were actually seen in the photographs. This was so exciting that I wanted to bring the jewels and photographs together.”
Thus began an arduous journey of eight years (primarily because such projects have close to zero funding in India), and Deepthi, who was working as part of the team commissioned by Princess Esra and Shri Martand Singh that restored the Chowmahalla Palace, says that her work led to several exhibitions and one on vintage photography that required a study of the palace photographs. She adds, “The work also led to a curatorial assignment on the exhibition of the Nizam’s jewels at the Salar Jung Museum. While on this assignment, I noticed that a lot of the jewels (now with the Government of India) were photographed in the late 19th, early 20th century and worn by the Nizams and members of their family. Usha had already published the catalogue that we were using as our guide and I reached out to her with the new material that had come to light. This was in 2006 and she decided that a new publication could possibly combine the new information.”
While the Nizam jewels acquired by the Government of India amount to 175 pieces, the duo says that there are more than 100 items in private collections and museums around the world. They looked at almost 1000 vintage photographs and then narrowed down the selection for the book. In an exclusive interview with #KhabarLive, the authors talk about their labour of love and the many discoveries they made during the making of this book.
What was the extent of research that went into the book?
The concept of the book was to show the jewels in the context of the men, women and children who wore them, how they were worn, the nature and style of adornment in the Nizam’s court. Accordingly, we started with the jewels that had already published (by Usha in Jewels of the Nizams) and knew belonged to the family. We then traced them through the photographs and archival evidence where available. The search then extended to Nizam jewels in other collections. For example, we knew of a fabulous carved emerald bazuband (armband) in the Al Sabah collection, Kuwait but not its Nizam provenance. We then discovered a photograph of Mir Osman Ali Khan’s wife actually wearing the jewel. In the book, the jewel and photograph are shown together – uniting the piece with the person it once belonged to.
Princess Esra Jah was generous in providing access to the palace archives and many gave us valuable time in explaining jewellery techniques and the etiquette of wearing these pieces. A lot of it was primary information from first-hand sources like royal family members, jewelers, historians and palace staff.
Have you written about unearthing the Princie diamond? Any other jewels you have discovered, which were hitherto unknown?
The oval cushion-cut 34 carat Princie diamond is a beautiful pink diamond that first made its appearance in the world of jewellery at a Sotheby’s auction in London in February 1960. The newspapers of the time reported that the gem belonged to the Nizam of Hyderabad. The diamond sold for the princely sum of GBP 46,000 and was purchased by Van Cleef & Arpels.
I always look at photographs with a magnifying glass in my hand, and during the perusal of a photograph featuring the young boy Nizam Mahboob Ali Khan, I noticed a sparkling ring on his finger. Thereafter, I undertook a detailed study comparing the shape and size of the stone in the ring to the Princie diamond. It is my belief that the stone in the Nizam’s ring is most probably the pink Princie. I have made several such discoveries, including identifying Oscar Massin, the famous French jeweller as the maker of the fabulous belt set with golden-colored diamonds.
Many of the pieces of jewellery are missing or lost today, but can they be traced? Do you think Indians and Indian governments should try and locate them, just like the Chinese are going about retrieving pieces that belong to their “century of humiliation”?
Ironically in India, the ‘humiliation’ is from within. Restricting ourselves to gems and jewels, there are fabulous collections languishing all around India which are undocumented, not catalogued and completely neglected. A systematic effort to document the artistic heritage of jewellery is long overdue.
Without bemoaning what is lost, we should concentrate on what remains, showcase it to the world, and preserve it for future generations.
An effort like this has to be driven by the government and a systematic listing of the jewellery and gems held in government museums, the Archaeological Survey of India, temples, mutts, and other collections should be opened up for academic access and study. An academic exercise like this should form the precursor to any effort to locate jewels here or elsewhere.
The Al Thani collection, currently travelling around the world showcasing Indian jewellery, heritage, craftsmanship, design, aesthetics, and India’s legendary wealth was put together only over the last five to six years. These fabulous jewels are being showcased to an awestruck world, and travelling from country to country and museum to museum. Sadly, our collections are hidden away in the storerooms of museums, in district treasuries, and in temple vaults.
We do not have a single qualified curator in any of our museums to care for the jewels.
What is the relevance of these jewels in modern-day Hyderabad?
These jewels are part of the history of the city and representative of its artistic and technical achievements. They are also chronicles of a way of life and a rich culture of adornment that existed in the city. Any Hyderabadi would only feel proud to see the beauty of the Deccani enameling, the expertise of the gem setter, the skill of the pearl piercing, and so on. The jewels are also benchmarks in jewellery design and elegance and a source of endless inspiration to artists, designers, historians and people alike. In fact, ever since the publication of my first book, there has been an immense revival of jewellery manufacturing in Hyderabad and renewed interest in Deccani traditions.
Have the unique pieces of Deccani jewellery like tora paon (unique anklets), champakali (a necklace made in the form of champaka flowers) and taveek choti (braid amulet) lost their prominence in the modern day? Is it possible to see their revival in modern-day jewellery collections?
Like fashion, jewellery almost always comes back into vogue. Some of the top designers in the country take age-old classic heirlooms of jewellery and pair it with contrasting modern, high-end fashion. Conversely, revivalist traditions change the form of the jewel but still rely on the traditional time-tested methods of setting jewellery or even wearing them and present them to the world. Whichever way you look at it, making this history available is important. To quote an old maxim, ‘If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future’. This is relevant as these pieces become reference points for all sorts of design endeavors.
The Asaf Jahis and their fabulous collection of jewels are legendary. How did the collection come about?
The Asaf Jahi collection of jewels was assembled over time. Kautiliya in the Arthashastra declared that “the kosha or treasury is an essential constituent of the State for the power of the government comes from the treasury.” Accordingly, royals around the India accumulated gems and jewels for their treasury.
The Asaf Jahs were representatives of the Mughals in the Deccan. The first ruler, Nizam ul Mulk, came to consolidate a then turbulent Deccan and was given the highest ranking title of Asaf Jah in 1724. Over the two centuries, successive generations of the Asaf Jahs ruled one of the largest areas in the subcontinent and were the premier princely state. Large revenue streams ensured a plentiful treasury. The Nizam received fabulous gifts of jewels from the Mughal emperor and from other neighboring rulers and nobles as expressions of admiration and loyalty.
The historic Golconda diamond mines that produced some of the most beautiful diamonds in history lay in the territory of the Nizam. And many found their way into the treasury. The Nizams also purchased fabulous jewels. Mir Mahboob Ali Khan, the sixth Nizam, was a connoisseur and acquired fabulous jewels.
What were the distinctions between the styles of the jewellery crafted for the Nizams and the women of their zenana? Also, were certain stones reserved exclusively for the use of the ruler?
Not just in Hyderabad, but across India, princely kingdoms have had separate and distinct pieces for men and women. Through history, the largest and best gemstones were the prerogative of the king/emperor/maharaja.
The Nizam was the premier Princely ruler and his jewels were distinct – besides the regional style (say of a Har murassa specific to Hyderabad) the Nizam also wore the biggest gems and stones that could be procured. The jewellery for the women however, although splendid, were made in multiple sets for his various wives. The jewels for the important women in the zenana were significantly larger.
You have seen and touched the Nizam’s jewellery which is currently with the government of India. Most people say that’s a fraction of the original collection, is that an accurate estimate? Also, what are your views on whether they should have a permanent exhibition, like the crown jewels of the United Kingdom?
The jewels with the government of India are indeed a fraction of the original collection. Jewels were liquidated for much-needed cash in the turbulent aftermath of the abolition of princely states and loss of revenue from land and other sources. This was the situation with royals around India.
India was the gem-capital of the world for thousands of years and has a jewellery tradition that spans more than five thousand years.
A gem and jewellery museum is desperately needed.
If the Crown Jewels of England can be on permanent exhibition, and has travelled on special exhibitions, why not the jewels of India? Furthermore, the Nizam’s jewels acquired with public money have only been exhibited twice since acquisitions. A collection so important deserves a place of permanent display.
The stories of the jewels of Indian royalty are legendary. Like the diamond serpech of Maharaja Duleep Singh or the Patiala necklace of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. Isn’t it a tragedy that most of them are now in private collections, lost forever to the nation?
Why aren’t we making an effort toward bringing these jewels to India for a special exhibition, where they can be showcased for everyone to view and admire? Instead of debating that they are ‘lost forever to the nation’, why don’t we provide sovereign guarantees, set up exchange exhibitions, and be part of the exhibition circuit as they tour the world? Today, they freely travel to every part of the world, except India – their home country. This is very sad.
Our country does not have a ‘National Museum’ of jewellery and gems. The National Museum of India does have some spectacular representative pieces, but they are by no means a reflection of the incredible variety, history and heritage of the legendary jewels that we have in our country. In the absence of a national agency, how can one lament the loss of historic pieces to private collections? The consideration to put the Nizam’s jewels on permanent display is certainly a good idea to make a start. #KhabarLive