It was just another day at the Brooklyn Museum, in Eastern Parkway, New York. Usha Balakrishnan, a research assistant who had just earned a degree in museum administration from New York University, was busy cataloguing its Indian art collection when one of the museum’s curators asked for her. There was a job that only the 29-year-old Indian could do. “Can you identify these pieces?" the curator asked, pointing to a pile of rings, necklaces and jewels that an art dealer had just emptied from his briefcase. He had acquired them without any knowledge of their Indian lineage and craftsmanship.

It was 1989, and Indian jewellery was yet to be auctioned by Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

Balakrishnan, familiar with minakari, filigree and the Mughal style of engraving, identified each article of jewellery, even putting a tentative place of origin and time period on it. It helped that she came from a culturally inclined family (her mother was an actor, brother a photographer and cousins are dancers, musicians and artists), and that she had spent most of her life in India.

Traditional jewellery has a special place in our personal and collective history. An antique gold necklace is suffused with aspirational, aesthetic and emotional associations. Gold was, and still is, our diamond. In that sense, the study of Indian jewellery, Balakrishnan’s chosen discipline —many say she is the only expert in the field—is also a study of Indian culture and society.

The last word: Balakrishnan takes interest in jewellery from south India, like this Manga Mala (in the foreground) that she owns. Abhijit Bhatlekar/ Mint

Now, after 20 years, when she evaluates an old piece, she can allow her sixth sense to guide her and let the jewels “talk to her". “I look for its wear and tear, the shape that it has taken after being worn for years, and its unique craftsmanship," she says.

This is an interesting time to be Usha Balakrishnan. In April last year, Christie’s auctioned the Baroda Pearls, two strands of an original seven-strand pearl necklace for $7.1 million (around Rs29 crore then). It belonged to the notoriously flamboyant Maharani Sita Devi, also known as India’s Wallace Simpson, in the 1940s.

Last month, at the preview of India’s first auction of fine jewels and watches, conducted by the online auctioneers Saffronart, Balakrishnan delivered a lecture on the inspiration and stories behind some of our best jewellery work—on how the art of jewellery here has evolved by assimilating contemporary global designs, but without losing its quintessentially Indian characteristics.

Since then, many collectors and buyers have contacted her to help them evaluate their heirlooms. “Indian jewellery now makes for great investment. Prices are only going to rise. But it’s important to remember that a lot of new pieces are now being passed off as antique pieces, and that authentication is crucial," she warns.

At 48, the art historian has already written three books and is now working on her fourth, a history of the famous Golconda diamond. We meet at Balakrishnan’s suburban home soon after the Saffronart auction. She’s wearing a rust-and-red silk sari, and a Manga Mala adorns her neck. “It’s the famous mango form of Tamil Nadu. I got it from the Nagercoil village near Rameswaram where this is made," she tells me. Set with rubies and diamonds, it is a strand of mango-shaped gold forms with enamel work, popularly known as “dance jewellery" or “temple jewellery". “I’m not a collector, just a jewellery lover and an occasional designer," she says.

Balakrishnan has been living in Mumbai since she returned from New York in the mid-1990s and took over as head of the Sotheby’s India office which opened in 1993. The auction house shut operations soon after. “At that time, jewellery wasn’t in the arena of auctionable art in India," she says. “Its place was in family treasure chests. Even though my research of collections all over the world continued, access to Indian private collections was very restricted." Wherever she went, from old jewellery stores to families who have owned jewellery for generations, past records were missing.

Despite the hurdles, Balakrishnan was ready to write her first book and Dance of the Peacock, an illustrated compendium of the 5,000-year-old history of Indian jewellery, was published in 1998 by India Book House (now in its fourth edition, the book costs Rs4,500).

The very next year, the Union culture ministry commissioned her to chronicle the Nizam of Hyderabad’s jewellery collection, which the government had acquired for Rs218 crore in 1995. “For four years, the collection was lying in the lockers of the Reserve Bank of India. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life to study this collection. For four days I was locked inside the RBI along with officials. I counted each gem and stone, weighed every piece and recorded each piece’s past and its tactile qualities," Balakrishnan recalls. It led to a book, Jewellery of the Nizam of Hyderabad—the only definitive work on any jewellery collection in India.

She’s currently researching for two more books—on the Ganjam and the Krishniah Chetty jewellers of Bangalore. “They’ve been making jewellery with the same tools that their ancestors used hundreds of years ago," she says. “They are our Fabergé and Tiffany. Unlike in the West, where a brand is synonymous with its designer, here the skill is more known than those who have the skill." Indian jewellery craftsmen transcend conventional caste barriers and are said to belong to the Vishwakarma caste all over the country; the name referring to the divine architect in Hindu mythology.

After 30 years of research, Balakrishnan was bound to have stumbled onto some fun facts and arrive at some surprising conclusions. For instance: Minakari, the trademark enamelling work practised in Rajasthan, long believed to be an import from Persia, in fact originated in Bijapur and Bidar in Karnataka; diamonds were India’s biggest exports in the 18th century and gold came through Portuguese and European traders who exchanged gold for diamonds; India was the hub of jewellery and gemstone trade in the 18th century.

But what really gets her and perhaps everyone who loves, collects and cherishes jewellery are the personal stories, the life that a piece of antique jewellery contains. “That Sita Devi was on the run with the Baroda pearls has something to do with their mystique and attracting power," Balakrishnan says. It’s like wearing a piece of history, or wearing the passage of time.


House of jewels

Balakrishnan considers these three collections to be the best in the world

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Russia

It has some of the most precious gemstones from the Mughal era. Nadir Shah of Iran, whose army looted the Mughal empire of some of its best jewels and gems in 1739, sent some of these pieces to Czarina Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia in 1741. Most of these pieces are preserved in this museum. The collection contains vessels and utensils, leg bracelets, head ornaments, rings and other objets d’art. Shah Jahan’s gold signet ring, decorated with a large diamond, rubies and emeralds, is the only item bearing an original engraved inscription in Persian—“Second Sahibqiran".

The Victoria and Albert Museum; the British Museum, London

The rarest Mughal and Indian jewels that went to the UK during the British era were with Duleep Singh, son of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, who was deported to London in 1854. He later became Queen Victoria’s godchild. Some evidences point to the fact that the Koh-i-noor diamond, too, went to London with him. Now weighing 108.93 carats after being re-cut, the Koh-i-noor is housed at the Tower of London.

Kuwait National Museum, Kuwait

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Indian maharajas had to cope with the loss of thousands of acres of land, and had to turn to their treasuries to sustain their lifestyle. Many jewels were sold during this time. Sheikh Nazer of Kuwait, who visited India often then, bought many of these pieces, which included carved emeralds, inscribed gemstones and Czekoslovakian crystals, which are now housed here.

Sanjukta Sharma