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Silent poetry

DIANE SUSTENDAL

An exhibition on the many forms of Mughal arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reveals the variety of techniques mastered by Indian craftsmen during that period. The works are of immense significance because many are dated or inscribed and can be associated with various charismatic rulers.


A spectacular selection ... a small natural blue mussel pearl, large cultured South Sea pearls and a natural pink conch pearl.

TRADITIONALLY, fall and winter are when museums here mount their most important shows, commonly called ``blockbusters'' because spectators form lines sometimes the length of a city block. This year is no exception and the shows offer a welcome respite from the rubble of the World Trade Center.

The American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, two of the city's most commanding cultural institutions, have opened no less than five exhibitions which provide an awe-inspiring glimpse into the arts, history, culture and influence of India, past and present.

The "Natural History" got off to a colourful start with a large exhibition entitled ``Meeting God. Elements of Hindu Devotion'' which opened September 8 and runs to February 24, 2002. The show, augmented with scholarly lecturers from curator Stephan Huyler and noted Indian naturalists Hashim Tyabji and Toby Sinclair, consists of lavish installations forming intimate portraits of Hinduism's rituals, prayers, customs and festivals. There are devotional objects, videos portraits and a series of wooden shrines from different parts of India where, surprisingly, puja offerings of money and flowers have remained unpinched.


Tarantula brooch with a rare 27 mm pearl from the horse conch as the abdomen.

"Meeting God" has been followed by "Pearls" that opened October 13. Here a dazzling array of historical jewels is balanced with audiovisuals that tell the story of pearl-forming molluscs, one of the most diverse animal phyla on earth. The show is a collaborative effort with the Field Museum in Chicago, to which the show will travel to upon closing here on April 14, 2002.

Among the 800 pieces incorporating some 500,000 pearls, are necklaces worn by Mary Queen of Scots (16th Century), actress Marilyn Monroe's single strand honeymoon pearls, and a very large, impressive four strand natural marine pearls from Hyderabad. And, in no small coup, actress Elizabeth Taylor has lent her diamond, ruby and pearl necklace that boosts the famed La Peregina as its pendant.

A crown worn by Empress Josephine of France, a 19th Century pearl-encrusted Nepalese royal turban, and all manner of pearls from humble mother-of-pearl buttons to elaborate religious vestments are also on view.


Chinese earrings of gilded silver with pearls and inlaid kingfisher feathers, 19th Century.

Across the park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has on view, not only, the dazzling, spectacular "Treasury of the World: Jewelled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals ", but also "Glass of the Sultans and Courtly Radiance: Metalwork From Islamic India". The presentations are part of the museum's efforts to showcase many forms of Mughal period arts.

The "Treasury of the World," with its more than 300 pieces from the al- Sabah collection, Kuwait National Museum, opened on October 16, after a highly successful run in London. It will remain until January 13, 2002 when it moves to the Cleveland Museum and Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

``As these resplendent and elegant works of jewellery from the 16th Century to the 19th Century demonstrate, the Mughals were among the greatest of the connoisseurs and creators of jewelled arts,'' said Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum. ``This landmark exhibition represents an unprecedented opportunity to experience the sumptuousness and the glamour associated with the Mughal Empire.''


Locket from the scabbard of a Katar dagger fabricated from gold, worked in kundan technique, set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

Sumptuous is almost an understatement. The grand imperial vision, refinement, and opulence for which the Mughal rulers of India (1526-1858) were renowned found ultimate expression in their jewelled arts. What could be more opulent or refined than a 56.7 carat diamond taviz pendent? The uninformed could mistake it for a piece of glass, but the knowing eye dances at the sight!

There are splendid examples of the kundan technique, in which gold is reduced to a pure state that it is malleable and can bond without heat, allowing the luminous colours of emeralds, rubies, etc. to show their intense clarity. Turban ornaments, necklaces, carved stones, bracelets, boxes, and rings are augmented with stone-encrusted daggers, scabbards, swords and enamelled bowls of such arresting beauty one visit to the exhibition is hardly enough.

Organised thematically and arranged chronologically within each section, the exhibit reveals the enormous variety of techniques mastered by Indian artists and craftsmen in the Mughal period. The works are considered of immense historical value because many are dated or inscribed, such as an important spinel stone with the titles of its multiple imperial owners from several Islamic dynasties, and can be associated with various charismatic Mughal rulers. The mixed cultural traditions of the Indian subcontinent, along with influences from a larger Islamic heritage, are reflected in the rich range of motifs and styles of Mughal jewelled arts.


Beaker, probably Syria, late 13th Century, grayish colourless glass, red, blue, green, yellow and white enamels, and gold.

Aware that this kind of show will enhance and increase interest in Indian arts and jewellery, the Met has taken the unprecedented step of commissioning the Kasiwal family of The Gem Palace in Jaipur, jewellery makers to India's royal families for over seven generations, to create over 300 pieces of fine jewellery, to be sold in one of the Met's specially installed gift shops.

``The new designs,'' says Munnu Kasiwal, who oversaw the production of all the pieces, ``are all based on historical Mughal designs but many have been brought into the 21st Century so that collectors of today can enjoy the craftsmanship of Indian jewellery.''

According to Kasiwal, more than 500 artisans were employed for more than a year-and-a-half to create this collection of earrings, bracelets, necklaces and pendants made of both precious and semi-precious stones with gold and enamel. The special collection is handcrafted and each piece is one of a kind. The Gem Palace collection created for the museum is being offered at prices ranging from $750 to $50,000 with all proceeds supporting the educational mission of the museum.

Both museums have comprehensive catalogues, in hard and paperback, as well as large selections of impressive coffee table books and an array of exhibition related goods for purchase at the museum's gift shops.

Highlights of both institution's permanent and especially mounted exhibits can be accessed on the museum's websites: Metropolitan Museum of Art (www.metmuseum.org) and the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org) .

The Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, is closed on Mondays and some national holidays. The American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th Street, is open seven days a week except on Thanksgiving and Christmas days.

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