Monday, 20 February 2012

South Asian Jewellery

The Changing Times of Gold Jewellery and Fashion in South Asian Culture
A personal comment from Ameena currently an intern on the ‘Voices of Asia’ project at Leeds Museum and Galleries.

In South Asian culture it is customary for the bride to receive gold jewellery in her dowry, as it gives them a ‘measure of economic independence’ and represents their status among the Asian Community. However, jewellery represents much more than this especially to South Asian women. To my mother it was more of a sentimental notion; it deepened the bond between mother and daughter. As on the onset of her wedding, her mother gave her a 24 carat gold set with a deep red, brown carnelian heart shaped stone and gold cutwork around the outer part of the stone. The ring also has a red carnelian stone but is circular and has the same cutwork detailing on the outer part.
This set is extremely valuable to my mother not just because it is gold but because of the sentimental value. My grandmother had bought the stone in Saudi Arabia whilst on a religious pilgrimage in 1985 and later, on her arrival in England had the stone set in gold by Asian jewellers on Whetley Hill, Bradford. This set was then given to my mother on the day of her wedding.  The stone, the design was carefully chosen, the heart shaped locket illustrated the strong relationship between mother and daughter and although my mother was leaving her family to be married it showed that the connection with her own family would still be there through this gold set. In later years, my grandmother set the same stone in gold for herself this further suggests that the stone symbolised the relationship between my mother and grandmother.

In Islamic tradition much of the jewellery has a precious stone in it, for example in this gold set it is red carnelian but also turquoise, amethyst, and sapphires are very popular in Saudi Arabia. As according to Muslim belief, stones possess mystic properties and therefore have often been used to inscribe astrological religious or magical inscription on the surface of the stone. Therefore, Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) stamped his foreign letters with a personal seal using a seal ring made out of carnelian stone. Furthermore, the red carnelian is also referred to as the ‘Medina Stone’ and to many South Asians it is known as Aqeeq.  
Precious stones are used in the elaborate jewellery of the Mughals, their jewellery was a blend of Islamic, Persian and Hindu influences and more importantly their era changed the design and trends of jewellery in South Asia. For many South Asians today jewellery is seen as a form of insurance and the Mughal’s used their gems as a form of portable wealth. It was used during ‘military campaigns’ as well as bargaining chip with other foreign countries.  My mother’s gold jewellery is influenced by the styles and design of the Mughal period, for instance the deep intense bold carnelian stone, as the Mughal’s adored different bold stones such as emerald and ruby in their jewellery. Also, the heart shaped design is very similar to the yellow heart shaped diamond locket that was given to Mumtaz Mahal by Shah Jahan the Mughal Emperor.
This set was remodelled in 2007 when my mother thought it had become a bit outdated. The earrings are no longer dangly and the style of filigree mount has also been changed. The gold set was changed in Pakistan because the jeweller was a part of my families extended network as my mother quotes ‘he is the only jeweller we can trust to give us the same amount of gold and that the purity of the gold will stay the same.’ There are strong kinship networks amongst the South Asian community in both Pakistan and England.  For example my grandmother went to this jeweller and then later my mother and aunty. Traditional gold jewellery sets like this one binds families together as well as illustrate the strong ties to their native country.
 The price of gold has soared over the years and it has become difficult for many people to buy gold. Furthermore, many newer designs contain more beaded work rather than being just gold.
These earrings were given to Leeds Museums and Galleries by Mr Abad Ali and were made in 1975. This design is known as Karanphul jumkha, made of gold wire and is 22 carat gold. The upper part of the earring is in shape of a five petal flower (phul) with pink glass set in the centre. The lower part is a semicircular dome form known as jumkha which means a bunch of flowers. The pendant fringe at the bottom of the dome is known as jhumna. This is a classical Mughal design which is often interpreted in a variety of styles. The beauty, fragrance and attractiveness of a flower in jewellery represent romance in South Asian culture which is similar to the symbolism of the heart shaped stone in my mothers’ gold set.  To South Asian women, jewellery reflects their identity and connects them to their native country. As the design of the earrings and my mothers’ set have been influenced by the Mughal period and South Asian culture.
From the 1950s following the influx of South Asians in Britain, jewellery designs developed further, mixing both eastern and western culture.  For instance, at an Asian wedding now, many brides tend to wear more artificial jewellery rather than traditional gold as shown in Asiana magazine.  This is because of a number of reasons, one being the artificial jewellery is more affordable, it can be matched with any outfit and therefore can be wore again. Times have changed; there is a more of contemporary, practical take on traditional styles gold of jewellery, thus creating a new style of jewellery.

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