In India, every community offers their own style of covetable bangles, earrings, necklaces and anklets
A traditional necklace of the Ao tribe of Nagaland. Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images
The range of jewellery available in India in terms of materials used, designs and techniques of craftsmanship is unparalleled,” says author and jewellery expert Usha Balakrishnan. She gives examples. The Nagas make jewellery using beetle wings, feathers and bones; Bengalis use conch shells for their bangles; Keralites include tiger claws and elephant hair in their jewellery; Maharashtrians use black beads; many states, including Tamil Nadu, use terracotta. The language of Indian ornamentation is vast. There is no such thing as pan-Indian jewellery. As Balakrishnan says, “Every region, every community and every caste has a specific form, design and technique, as instantly identifiable as regional textile prints”. And hugely covetable, might I add.
Consider the unusual ornaments available for a modern Indian trousseau: the curved veni hair ornament of Maharashtra, worn above and around a chignon; the long gold necklaces of the Samvedi Christian community of Goa, with round gold coins the size of a Rs.10 coin; the jadai billai that covers the braided hair of the Andhra bride; the cubist-looking pampadamearrings of Tamil Nadu; the kada-like silver ankle bracelets of Rajasthan; the graceful Kashmiri jhumkas; the fabulous turquoise and silver necklaces of Himachal Pradesh; the shell bracelets of Nagaland; the kasu mala or coin necklaces worn by the Syrian Christian brides of Kerala; the striking tulu-nadu brass belt of Karnataka, with its cobra head; thekopou phool, orchid-like earrings of Assam; the amulet necklaces worn by the Muslim communities of Kerala and Hyderabad; the loriyan earrings, with their geometric shapes, worn by the Mehr and Rabri tribal women of Gujarat; the serpent-like nagmuri bracelets of Madhya Pradesh; the nagbeshar nose ring worn by the Rana Tharu communities of Nepal and Himalayan India. The list goes on and on.
In that sense, Indian jewellery conforms to every notion of luxury. It has provenance in that it is specific to time and place. It is customized. Families have certain motifs for their ornaments—like the tulsi plant or the shiva-lingam found in Tamilian thalis—or mangalsutras. Women still sit down with jewellers and custom-design their ornaments. Each piece of jewellery has an ethos and a meaning, from the navaratna stones that are used to propitiate planets to the jewel-like key bunch that is ceremonially handed over by a mother-in-law to her daughter-in-law.
Some regions are far more accepting of jewellery traditions. The more cosmopolitan a state gets, the less it holds on to its traditional ideas of aesthetics. In Chennai weddings, you still see women wearing uniquely Indian jewellery. The bullukkunose ring; the oddiyanam waist band, usually made of thick gold; the vanki armband, with its graceful upward curve that ends with two peacocks or flowers touching each other.
This love of jewellery transcends region and religion. In Kerala, our Syrian Christian friends went to church wearing starched white “sets” and spartan mundus or dhotis. Come a family wedding though and they adopted the Indian notion of alankara, adorning oneself with gold jewellery to the point where little else is visible. India has a “more is more” aesthetic, and nowhere is this more visible than in the way we use jewellery.
In south India, women wear glass bangles mixed with gold, a casual and sensual mixing of colour, sound and price-point. The colours too are prescribed: for instance, women in Tamil Nadu wear green and red bangles while the Koli fisherwomen of Mumbai wear just green bangles.
The film Bajirao Mastani brought the beautiful jewellery of the Peshwas into soft focus. Not too many Maharashtrian women I know wear the nath, the beautiful nose ring, but they should. They own it after all. Often, a bride was blessed by the jewellery she wore: “May your nath be ever present,” “May your mangalsutra outlast you.”
My mother and mother-in-law view certain pieces of jewellery as cardinal. If I visit their homes, often I am greeted with, “Where are your bangles?” or “Why no earrings?” A mangalsutra is a sacrosanct symbol of marriage. The same goes for toe rings and nose rings.
The late Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi wore them all with—I’d like to say rare grace, but really it wasn’t that rare. The grace with which M.S. carried her jewellery can be seen in pretty much every traditional south Indian woman of the previous generation. They loved their jewels and had no qualms about wearing them and enjoying them.
I come from a family of women who enjoy and collect jewellery. My aunt in Washington has three diamond necklaces and a gold waistband and wears them for functions even in winter. Jewellery, like perfume, is seen as an expression of self; a bolster to the spirit; a reflection of the soul.
I know a purveyor of antiques in Chennai called “Lily-aunty”. She has a shringara set of antique ornaments that is spellbinding in its variety. I bought a brass kajal-dani at an antique fair some time ago. It has two parrots as decoration and ingeniously opens out into two containers: one for the kajal and the other for a mirror. I use it to wear my contact lenses and feel like a tribal princess.
Shoba Narayan is looking for a stone-studded veni (hair ornament).