Project Bawra – Contemporary Jewellery developments in India

Article  /  Making   Debates
Published: 28.11.2014
Project Bawra – Contemporary Jewellery developments in India.
Anvita Jain
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As any traditional society, jewellery plays an important role in reinforcing notions of status, gender and community in India. Project Bawra hopes to challenge the established definition of jewellery and its role in an Indian context by introducing a conceptual conversation to the process of making. 
Project Bawra is an initiative to build a platform for international exchange and dialogue on contemporary jewellery in India, engaging its craft traditions and providing impetus to the minimal practices in the field. Currently, there isn’t a dedicated platform encouraging Indian jewellery artists and designers to explore and showcase work that falls outside the regular commercial and design market in India. There is also a need to develop authorship and scholarship on the subject.
I come from an Indian family of traditional jewellers. My mother is, and my grandfather had been a jeweller. I studied fashion and textiles in India, and then Visual Communication and graphic design at Birmingham City University, UK and Cranbrook Academy of Art, USA. It was during my time at Cranbrook, two years ago, that Iris Eichenberg, head of the metal department,  and I sowed the seeds for Project Bawra. In my mind, the project carries on the family tradition, in a way that I find more enriching, urgent, and therefore, more interesting.
India, the fascinating land of diversity and contradictions is currently in a state of unpredictable flux. Nowhere else would you find coexistence of such staggering levels and scale of poverty, wealth and urban development. Recently, India successfully sent its first orbiter to Mars. While we worship many goddesses, atrocities on women and their lack of safety are pressing issues. India carries one of the oldest traditions of ornamentation and is the largest market for gold in the world, which is mostly consumed in wedding jewellery. We also have many master craftsmen working in age-old traditional crafts passed on to them through generations. As any traditional society, jewellery plays an important role in reinforcing notions of status, gender and community in Indian society. This photograph of myself from my wedding last year illustrates the dominating role jewellery plays in the theatrics. Weddings and wedding jewellery have been and more importantly still are a huge deal in present day Indian culture both from economic and social standpoints. So how can all this wealth, the long traditions of adornment and ornamentation, the current realities and the thriving traditional crafts support jewellery as an art practice and an original contemporary expression of place?

Image courtesy of the author

This July, I visited my family in India, which was also my first visit to some relatives since my wedding. This first visit is considered quite auspicious in Indian tradition. Just as we were leaving, my mother (who is a traditional fine jeweler) asked me to wear the pearl earrings she gifted me because typically, new brides are expected to dress up in a bright new sari and a lot of jewellery for the occasion. I was wearing a basic cotton tunic and to her despair, no jewellery at all besides a nose pin. She sternly said “bare ears don’t look nice, wear some earrings, it’s your first time after the wedding”. Nonetheless, I decided to go as I was. My mother resigned and did not repeat herself. For me, this is a very tiny example of the kind of small but significant everyday resistance jewellery lends itself to. In this case, the resistance was in the act of not wearing it in order to reinforce my own individual identity in the face of a social one.
As an Indian woman growing up in a fairly conventional household and a world surrounded by precious metals, stones, exquisite craftsmanship and conversations centered around jewellery investments, wedding jewellery as dowry and so on, I developed a difficult relationship with traditional jewellery. As much as I was drawn to the craft and the beauty of its aesthetic, I found it extremely problematic to endorse the gender, status and community associations.
Kevin Murray wrote an essay titled Mystery of Contemporary Jewelry in India for Art Jewelry Forum in 2011 on his return from Abhushan, an international jewellery summit that took place in India organized by the World Craft Council. The summit included an exhibition called Seed to Silver, which showed works from all the five world regions. Murray mentions that while the contemporary jewellery on display originated from all the world regions, India itself was represented exclusively with tribal jewellery. This prompts him to ask the question “does Indian contemporary jewellery exist?”
In India, jewellery is commonly understood as being either ‘real’, precious or fine and ‘artificial’, ‘imitation’ or non- precious. Until recently, artificial jewellery was typically a copy of precious jewellery made with non-precious materials. This has major status implications. Those wearing ‘artificial’ or non-precious jewellery are seen as merely trying to match up by imitating those who can afford the ‘real’ stuff. This speaks volumes about the deeply class-based society India is. But, the social structure has been evolving with a subsequent shift in taste. In the past couple of years or so, there has been a prominent rise of a third category called Costume or fashion jewellery (may or may not overlap with imitation jewellery), which signifies the rising awareness of jewellery being a form of individual expression in its own right. Mostly donned by the young generation, unapologetic in its use of non-precious materials, costume jewellery is more about ‘standing out’ and ‘making a statement’ than monetary value. Some of the costume / fashion jewellery by Indian designers has already started to challenge and subvert conventional notions of gender and class.
Any craft based practice in India is hard to imagine without the role of the traditional craftsman. The ubiquity, skill and the economic condition of the craftsmen are all part of the reality of present India. The most common setup for jewellery designers and jewellery houses in India is to have a workshop with several artisans who offer a variety of skills towards specific ends. Most of the design is limited to assembling and reassembling of various pre-existing elements. The idea of solo production or the artist maker is largely absent since contact with materials is delegated to others which leads to a division of labor between creativity and production.
Uncut stone setting in a jewellery workshop in Jaipur, India
Photograph by Krystof Kriz


During a conversation I had about jewellery education in India with Dr. Usha Balakrishnan, an indian jewellery historian and a teacher of history of jewellery in Mumbai for many years, she said that the students are not exposed to what is happening in the field of contemporary jewellery internationally. Their inspiration remains limited to antique Indian jewellery or Hong Kong jewellery catalogs. The students are not equipped with the knowledge of materials, techniques of making so they could become the guide to the craftsman. If they come up with a new idea, they are at the mercy of the craftsman to bring it to life who more often than not, says ‘this can’t be done’. They rely on the craftsman to interpret their design and the designs are tailored for an easy interpretation by the craftsman. The jewellery students also don’t venture out beyond working with a jewellery craftsman to explore other materials and crafts. In Mumbai, the craftsmen they are working with are all in Zaveri Bazaar (meaning jewellery market). Most of the students come from jewellery families to learn design, gemology and perhaps do a little bit of family business before they get married. There are no boys and one rarely sees men in the pursuit of designing jewellery. The craftsmen are all men but they come from a different caste and community and the occupation is hereditary.

Over the past couple of years, some artists and designers have been pushing the boundaries with their work. Among them, there is a variety of ways in which they work. Some have adopted a typical western studio model for individual practice. Some make prototypes with their own hands and involve artisans for production. Yet some others have involved artisans as an active part of creative output. Not surprisingly, all the artists and designers presented are either Indian and have been trained outside of India at institutions like Royal College of Art, London or Alchimia or RISD or are trained jewelry artists from other parts of the world who have spent some time in India and discovered the local skills of Indian craftsmen to collaborate with.

Shilpa Chavan or “Little Shilpa’s” work sits somewhere between fashion jewellery, styling, art jewellery or more broadly as adornment. While her work has been celebrated as a fashion stylist (fashion being a far more developed discipline in India), there hasn’t been much, if any, critical examination of her work from the standpoint of contemporary jewellery. Her pieces are found on the ramp, in design shops and occasionally in contemporary visual art galleries.
Masooma Syed uses human hair, nails and other found objects along with silver and copper in her work. Originally from Pakistan, now living between New Delhi and Lahore, Masooma has developed a body of work exploring jewellery “as an intimate art object, a body extension or a body-centered ornament which carries a strong message and meaning and challenges the conventions of body ornaments, aesthetic appeal, its rituals and its function.” She categorizes her jewellery as sculpture, trying to push its boundaries and limits both in form and content where the commonly understood craft of utility could be investigated and liberated from its stereotypes.

A Ring with human nails and silver by Masooma Syed
Image courtesy of the artist

Sham Patwardhan Joshi is an Indian studio jeweller living and working in Hannover, Germany. Adopting a similar approach of jewellery as sculpture in his work as Masooma, Joshi seems to be currently the only Indian male contemporary jewellery artist maker.
Denkende Hände by Sham Patwardhan Joshi
Image courtesy of the artist

Denkende Hände by Sham Patwardhan Joshi
Image courtesy of the artist

Tanvi Kant is a British born jewellery artist of Indian descent and makes her pieces by tightly hand tying reclaimed fabrics. The pieces are reminiscent of traditional methods used for treating textiles and also strings used for holy rituals in India.

A necklace with various textiles by Tanvi Kant
Image courtesy of the artist

Eina Ahluwalia returned to India after briefly training at Alchimia. She regularly showcases her work at Lakme India Fashion Week, which has become the popular platform for Indian jewellery designers falling outside of the fine jewellery circuit. Ahluwalia designs and creates her own prototypes and produces them with the help of Indian craftsmen. In her interview on the Alchimia blog, she talks about her decision to study jewellery making after feeling frustration, stagnation, lack of personal expression and being limited by the skills of the artisans who are strong in traditional idiom but were unable to think beyond. She felt the need to learn new skills, methods and materials to grow. The loss in translation that occurred between her and the artisan led her to realize the importance of getting her hands dirty. For once, she says, the artisans could not say ‘it’s not possible’ because she had the answers and this was a liberating experience.
Esther Brinkmann, a Swiss jewellery artist living in India, makes an interesting point about her experience and the limitations that came with working with the master craftsman Kamal Meenakar, a national awardee in Jaipur whose work is proudly traditional with no interest in experimentation. Brinkmann sees the limitations as an opportunity for creativity. While she explores the possibilities with traditional enamel, the interaction between two people with very different ideas about considering ornament on a surface seems equally valuable to her.
Alice Cicolini’s handcarved ebony pieces are also made in collaboration with Kamal Meenakar in Jaipur. Master craftsmen traditionally use hand carved ebony pieces as templates or maquettes at the beginning of a commission in 24ct gold. These are later discarded despite ebony being an endangered wood and the fine quality of the carving. Cicolini’s Temple collection re-evaluates these ebony maquettes by creating lasting, fine quality pieces, combining the carving with 18ct yellow gold, rubies and diamonds.
During my last conversation with Kamal, he seemed quite open to workshop exchanges with other artists.
Project Bawra would like to advocate a 'concept' based practice where the 'process of thinking through making' is paramount. When put in context of India, it would be interesting to see how this could come about through individual practice as well as collaborations when new materials and old techniques get introduced and exchanged thus inducing new meanings of jewellery into the imagination of its makers and wearers and onlookers. We would also like to challenge how the role of the craftsman is assumed in an Indian setting. Project Bawra would provide a platform for exchange of skills and dialogue between master craftsmen, artists and designers of India and other parts of the world. We are interested in the skills and the nuances the craftsmen could bring to the table. The idea is for the configuration of materials and makers to somehow challenge the traditional notion of jewellery (which in the case of India includes the traditional supply chain).
The project has so far gained interest from a wide range of individuals including scholars, artists, designers, artisans and manufacturers. The eagerness for pushing the envelope and a lack of direction became evident on a recent visit to a manufacturer and wholesaler family in Jaipur with young men educated in UK joining the family business. With much pride, they showed us pieces they have been preparing for an exhibition, which were all beautifully crafted but quite traditional lacking any freshness or originality. A lot of young people get international exposure when they leave the country but lose the support system to develop their ideas further once they move back. Hopefully, Project Bawra would provide the dialogue required to fill this gap. To move forward, we are interested in partnering with cultural organizations internationally to organize cross-cultural events with exhibitions, workshops and seminars where these issues can be voiced.

About the author

Anvita Jain is a graphic designer, entrepreneur and educator living in Prague. She is an Associate Lecturer of graphic design at Prague College and also manages the hybrid space Jain&Kriz together with photographer Krystof Kriz. Jain&Kriz is a cross-cultural store/gallery/studio space engaging in and showcasing contemporary craft. The store has partnered with several social enterprises and non-profit organizations in India working with hand woven and hand printed textiles and is now developing a collection of jewellery in collaboration with a Finnish designer engaged in Project Bawra.