A precious piece of Indian history has arrived in Paris. After passing through the United Kingdom, North America and East Asia, the Jewels of the Al Thani Collection exhibit is now headlining at the Grand Palais, where it will be on display until June 5. The collection showcases some of the most beautiful ornaments from the Mughal empire and the period of British rule. It reveals both the beauty of early modern Indian jewellery, and their fascinating influence on Western jewellers.
The collection also reveals how India’s cultural heritage, scattered by the pillaging of invaders and colonial armies, is now being reassembled for a global audience. The owner of the collection is Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, CEO of the Qatar Investment and Projects Development Holding Company and cousin of the Qatari emir. Other members of his dynasty have made names for themselves collecting modern Arab painting and contemporary Western art, transforming Qatar into a hub of the global art business.
Al Thani’s travelling exhibit of Indian art is a blockbuster show, complete with merchandise tie-ins: replica earrings, rings and mirrors are available in the gift shop. And the exhibit provides yet another opportunity for Qatar to flex its soft power in France. In recent years, state-backed Qatari companies have purchased French icons like the Paris Saint-Germain football club, while sponsoring cultural events such as last year’s exhibit Human Rights and the Islamic World at the Institute of the Arab World.
But behind the glitz, the money and the politics, the arrival of this iconic collection of Indian jewellery speaks to the centuries-old connections between France and India. Some of the most astonishing pieces in the Al Thani collection come from the court of Tipu Sultan, including a bejewelled tiger’s head (a symbol of his rule), torn from his throne by British soldiers, and an enigmatic golden fortune-telling device.
The eighteenth-century ruler of Mysore had courted an alliance with the French, sending an embassy to Paris in 1787-1788. His ambassadors charmed Parisian society. Painters and sculptors captured their images, while Louis XVI loaded them with official gifts. Many of these gifts, like the treasures now in the Al Thani collection, were later seized by the British when they looted Tipu’s palace at Srirangapatnam in 1799. Other reminders of the Franco-Mysorean friendship still survive in Paris today, however. The palace of Versailles holds a remarkable full-length portrait of a Mysorean ambassador, and the Louvre’s collections include busts of the ambassadors and their servants.
Tipu Sultan had an impact beyond the visual arts. His legacy found its way into unexpected corners of French culture. The protagonist of French novelist Jules Verne’s best-selling science fiction adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the mysterious Captain Nemo, is in fact Tipu Sultan’s nephew, bent on revenge against the British. The famous automaton Tipu’s Tiger captured by the British, which is now on display in the V&A Museum in London, may have been made for Tipu’s court by a collaboration between Mysorean artisans and French workers sent by Louis XVI in response to Tipu’s embassy.
Although the Franco-Mysorean alliance came to a tragic conclusion, connections between France and India continued through the era of British colonial rule. In 1911, the French jeweller Jacques Cartier, scion of the famous Parisian house of Cartier jewellers founded by his grandfather, travelled to India. One of his biggest customers was the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh. Buying Cartier’s wares allowed the Maharaja to indulge two of his great passions at the same time: presenting himself as a European gentleman (often seen playing cricket and riding Rolls Royces) and displaying himself bedecked in jewels. The pride of his collection was the Patiala necklace, a piece made by Cartier in 1928 from nearly 3,000 diamonds.
The Cartier family learned much from traditional Indian jewellery. By the 1920s, they were selling their own versions of Indian designs throughout the world. Under the ‘tutti frutti’ label, they dazzled Western buyers with pieces that combined emeralds, rubies and diamonds in adaptations of Mughal-era jewelery. They are still selling these pieces, and remain proud of their celebrated “Hindu necklace”, designed in 1936.
At the same time, the Cartier dynasty was also skilfully combining Indian styles with European art deco influences, to create stunning original pieces for the Indian market. This 1934 turban ornament made of platinum and diamonds is a testament to their skill.
No one in colonial India, however, was more of a Francophile than the Maharajah of Kapurthala, Jagatjit Singh Bahadur. He modelled his palace on the French royal court of Versailles, and ordered his jewellery from the Mellerio family of Parisian jewellers. For centuries, Mellerios had been setting gems for the French court, and the Maharaja must have enjoyed thinking that he was served by the same house that had worked for Louis XVI and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Of course, if France has historical ties to the Al-Thani collection, India has a far deeper connection. The jewels reflect centuries of Indian history, from Mughal emperors to modern maharajas. The stories behind the gems are dramas of foreign invasion, colonial rule, conflict and collaboration. Yet, after touring Europe, Asia and North America, the collection has yet to come to the Subcontinent.
Al-Thani himself seems to have an ambivalent relationship with India. While he admires the beauty and sophistication of its artistic heritage, he admits that he finds it far easier to collect Indian art from European museums, which can hardly resist the enormous offers Qatari art collectors are famous for. “One cannot get anything from India,” he lamented to the Times of India. In the same interview, he compared himself to Shah Jahan and to Nadir Shah, who is said to have “rolled around in the gems” of the Mughal treasury after sacking Delhi in 1739. This is not, perhaps, the most tactful comparison. One hopes that it will not be long before the collection finds its way to India, and that, in the meantime, its owner finds a more felicitious way of expressing his appreciation for India’s cultural heritage.
From the Great Mughals to the Maharajas: Jewels from the Al Thani collection is on display at Grand Palais, Paris, till June 5.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article included some images that were incorrectly credited. They have been removed.