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Sunday , September 27 2020

in the grip of death … the art of life

In a new book, “Precious Indian Weapons: And Other Princely Accoutrements” on the collection of 200 masterpieces in the Al-Sabah collection, Senior Curator and Collection Manager Salam Kaoukji sheds light on the legendary wealth and opulence of the Indian courts and to their tradition for fine and artistic craftsmanship during the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

Edged weapons are among the most ancient utilitarian objects used by mankind in hunting and self-defence, and as indicators of social status. Among the many celebrated arts of India, weaponry and military accoutrement, on account of being vastly regarded as purely utilitarian objects or shunned as instruments of violence, have had their artistic significance and spectacular craftsmanship overlooked by the wider public.

While the weapons display decorative features derived from ancient and medieval traditions of Central Asia, the Iranian world and China, Renaissance Europe through the contact  of trade, travellers and warfare, it is the long-standing Indian artistic traditions and native customs of fine craftsmanship for a class of enlightened patrons that raised this art to its elevated heights, producing objects of sublime, uplifting beauty.

These jewelled weapons were functional and not just ceremonial, and the decorative techniques involved in the art of Indian weaponry included gemstone setting, enamelling, hardstone carving, jawhar patterned blades, gold inlay and overlay among others.

At the weekly DAI lecture that was followed by the book launch, Kaoukji stated that these weapons are a testament to the legendary opulence and refinement of Indian courts and especially the uninterrupted Indian tradition of exceptional craftsmanship.

“In the course of my work at the collection, I became aware that weapons were generally considered the prerogative of arms and armour specialists and were rarely rated as works of art despite being indistinguishable from other jewelled arts in style and technique”, she stated.

But she stressed that the details bring to light the type and variety of jewellery making techniques used in the decoration of Indian daggers. To remedy this, Kaoukji included such weapons in exhibitions that don’t typically display arms and armour in order to draw attention to the artistry and craftsmanship that went into making them and that undeniably classifies them as art objects.

She began the lecture with a detail from a Chilanum dagger scabbard of Mughal dominions from the first quarter of the 17th century as it demonstrates both the Indian gem setting kundan technique and the Indian fascination with colour which is manifest in their use of brightly coloured gems. She pointed to interesting details where the eye of the birds were made up of emerald cabochons, less than a millimetre in diameter and affirmed that the Indian fascination with colour is compounded with great appreciation of naturalia.

“It should come as no surprise that it proved inspirational in the ornamentation of their weapons. A decorative approach that one would not expect to find on weapons”, she remarked.

She revealed that this type of work could only be achieved by setting gemstones in the kundan technique which is unique to India and allowed artists limitless artistic freedom and enabled them to set stones closer together and engrave the surrounding surface.

She referred to the skill and mastery of the craftsmen pointing to the small surface area worked on in another set of dagger sidebars seen on a katar, that was embellished with fleur-de-lis decorations, palmettes, and  engraved details.

The lower end of the hilt of a bird-head of a probably Deccan late 16th-17th century dagger, is similarly breathtaking as the cells that hold the emerald are octagonal at first and while the pattern tapers, they become hexagonal.

Looking at a Eared dagger of Mughal Dominions from first half of the 17th century, Kaoukji shared that the same technique was employed to inlay hard stones. The jade hilt was inlaid with gold, rubies and emerald. Another stunning example of this is the almost black jade in the bird-head pommel hilt of a Deccan 17th century dagger that is inlaid with white jade and rubies with the white jade making up petals and leaves.

She shared examples where the kundan technique was applied with enamel as seen in a beautiful katar from the collection that depicts inclusion of insects and Chinese cloud bands for protection and luck.

The harness fittings for either a horse or elephants, shows a base made of the best quality of red enamel and the flowers set with diamonds and emeralds. Kaoukji opined that the details of the floral spray developing from a bird’s head show that it was undoubtedly done at the craftsman’s discretion.

In her lecture, Kaoukji also discussed an enamelled and gem-set archery ring from the Deccan belonging to the first half of the 17th century, set with turquoise and rubies. Turquoise was not easily available and brought in from Iran. The interior of the ring mirrors the exterior in design pointing to a supreme sophistication as the interior of the ring and its beautiful enamelling would never have been seen by anyone but the owner.

Another way of enhancing the decoration of objects was through the variety of gemstone cuts. One of the distinct types consisted in setting natural diamond crystals or uncut and unpolished diamonds. In a Mughal chilanum from the first quarter of the 17th century, they were used to line the pommel bar at the lower end and the sides of the knuckle guard. Kaoukji opines that it could have been so to protect the object as the diamond is a hard stone.

Kaoukji informed that the diamond mines of the Deccan in India were the only sources of diamond in the world until the end of the 18th century and from the subtle graduation of the crystals outlining the hilt, one can ascertain the large amount of diamond crystals available that allowed them to achieve the graduated effect. Although the prevailing view is that diamond crystals set in their natural state only occurred around the 17th century, an ancient ring in the collection demonstrates that natural diamond crystals were used in the area since antiquity, she stated.

Among Indian gem settings later replicated or adapted to produce a similar effect by renowned European jewellers, was a technique whereby gemstones are packed tightly side by side and held in place by the outlining gold, allowing jewellers to create the effect of an uninterrupted field of colour.  Another technique was channel setting which served to produce interrupted lines of colour in which stones are set in a line held only by a groove or channel in the outlining gold borders. She presented the audience examples of channel setting as seen on the upper end of hilts and around the disc pommel of a Deccan tulwar from the first half of the 17th century in the Al Sabah Collection.

She pointed out that India is also as celebrated for its decorative styles of enamelling executed with a finesse usually encountered in miniature paintings from the period. “This is especially worthy of admiration because unlike its long standing tradition of gem cutting and setting, no form of enamel work existed in the area except for a few examples dating back to the middle of the 3rd century BC to the first quarter of the 2nd century AD.” Enamelling was introduced into Indian courts by European jewellers in the later 16th and early 17th centuries. As it provided indian jewellers with a new means to stimulate their creativity, they immediately excelled in the art.

In addition, India’s achievements in sculpture, art, and carving, furnished a considerable amount of exquisitely carved precious and hardstone ends in known representations as well as vegetal and animal forms that testified to this tradition. She presented the example of an emerald hilt of a sword from 17th century Mughal or Deccan dominions in the collection.

She noted that another distinctly Indian edged weapon is the type with the floral pommel, a feature that does not exist anywhere else and that corresponds with decorative practices prevalent on a large number of indian weapons. In a Floral dagger carved from Jade from Mughal or Deccan dominions from around the first half of the 17th century, she pointed to the details of the object where each petal of the bud is slightly overturned around the edge. “The bud seems to be sitting on the tips of the leaves and the leaves are very beautifully craved with the tip of the edge of the leaf is overturned. There is an evidence of both the patrons and the craftsman. You cannot produce such a thing by just ordering it”, she remarked.

She added that methods of inlaying and overlaying metal with gold and silver were just as important with regards to the decorative techniques. The process of inlaying involves engraving a pattern in the surface and inlaying it with precious metal.

By contrast the method of overlaying metal with gold involved crosshatching the metal surface to allow the coats of gold or silver which was subsequently outlined according to the intended designed and burnished on to the surface.

Indian wootz steel from which marvellous examples of pattern welded or jawhar blades were produced was of long standing repute and is reported that when Alexander the great invaded India in 327 BC, he returned with a large amount of wood steel which he ordered forged into weapons, she stated.

She divulged that written sources to determine the period in which most weapons were produced could not be relied upon because even when they were assigned familiar names, their forms were never described. She also touched upon the origin and evolution various indian weapons such as the chilanum, ear daggers, katar, among other objects. Concluding with the statement, “Only the exceptional refinement and elegance of indian courts coupled with connoisseurship of the jewelled arts and appreciation of superb craftsmanship could have produced the marvellous objects.”

By Cinatra Fernandes – Arab Times Staff – Photos courtesy of DAI

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