Photographs by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times 
Photographs by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times 

Opinion: The hidden jewel in the National Museum

  • The 185-carat Jacob diamond is the highlight of the Jewels Of India: The Nizam’s Jewellery Collection exhibition, ongoing till 5 May
  • The exhibition only allows a limited number of people in at a time, creating a “hold" area. The hidden jewel is outside the exhibition

In Delhi’s National Museum, on a velvet cushion inside a rotating vitrine, rests a 185-carat diamond.

Unlike the violent past and bizarre superstitions that come with the Koh-i-Noor, the story of the Jacob diamond has closer ties to jeweller Nirav Modi’s bankruptcy.

The Jacob diamond—almost double the size of the Koh-i-Noor—is among the 173 jewellery items from the collection of the nizams of Hyderabad that are on display at the National Museum. It is the highlight of the Jewels Of India: The Nizam’s Jewellery Collection exhibition (ongoing till 5 May). Seeing it in the vitrine led me to Australian author John Zubrzycki’s 2011 book, The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician And Spy, which narrates the diamond’s journey across the world and its role in a tale of deceit and debt.

It is named after Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a Jewish merchant who sold it to Mir Mahbub Ali Khan, the nizam of Hyderabad, in the late 19th century. It was no ordinary sale. Jacob had quoted 1.2 crore, which the nizam bargained down to 46 lakh. Jacob still stood to gain by a huge margin since he had negotiated the purchase for 21 lakh.

The nizam had resisted a written contract, and though a partial advance had been paid, he was free to say pasand (approved) or napasand (rejected) when the diamond arrived. Napasand it was. And with Jacob unable to return the advance—he had spent it—the diamond lapsed to the ownership of the nizam.

As recently as 1995, the government acquired the nizam’s jewels from a trust that held it, at a cost of 218 crore. The Jacob diamond itself is now reportedly worth more than 400 crore.

While the nizam’s jewellery has been displayed twice earlier at the National Museum, in 2001 and 2007, there seems to be a greater effort this time to provide background and context. Covering a period ranging from the 18th century to the early 20th century, the collection includes turban ornaments, necklaces, belts and buckles, bracelets, earrings, pocket watches and more. The diamonds are largely from Golconda, the emeralds—in cut, drop and bead form—from Colombia, the rubies and spinels from Myanmar and the pearls from Basra. The fine workmanship on display is most evident in enamelling so refined that some of the heavy-set jewellery pieces are exhibited stone-side down to reveal the intricate enamelling on the underside.

The exhibition only allows a limited number of people in at a time, creating a “hold" area.

The hidden jewel is outside the exhibition.

It is a touch-screen kiosk with the history and details of the Jacob diamond and other pieces in the show, developed as a quick project as part of the work-in-progress National Virtual Library of India (NVLI) project.

News of the Union ministry of culture (MoC) setting up the NVLI came out last year, its objective being to collate and standardize all available digital information in an easily searchable form. A sort of Google-for-India, if you will. The MoC has commissioned the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) and several partner institutes such as the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay to take this forward.

Later, I spoke to Prof. Pradeep Varma, who headed the NVLI team that produced the kiosk, and Prof. Kannan Moudgalya, the principal investigator for the project, both from IIT, Bombay. “The high security for this exhibition allows only a few people to go through at a time, so we thought why not give them something to engage with as they wait. The team at IIT, Bombay had done a similar portal on Sardar Patel, which was launched by the PM in October 2016, so we had a template in place," says Prof. Moudgalya.

The NVLI is part of the National Mission on Libraries, whose website says that even as vast quantities of information are digitized under assorted projects by government departments like MoC, human resource development, department of information and technology, C-DAC, Prasar Bharati, All India Radio, and state governments, the NVLI is meant to be a comprehensive database, presented in a user-friendly format, with multilingual options.

Its target users will be students, researchers, doctors and professionals and special modules can be built in to cater to specific information needs. An online platform covering arts, science, technology, education, archaeology, literature, and including cartography maps, e-papers and manuscripts, seems like a welcome resource, if done well.

A limited-version launch (for invited users) of the NVLI portal happened on 15 February. Once formally launched, the NVLI team believes theirs could be one of the world’s largest virtual libraries, similar in scope to Trove, an Australian online library database aggregator hosted by the National Library of Australia.

Until then, the kiosk is a good touch point.

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