Asian Nomadic Jewellery: Kipper Collection

Asian Art Newspaper takes a look at tribal South Asian jewellery from the Barbara and David Kipper collection, a promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago, including Asian nomadic jewellery from Afghanistan and India

The wide range of vegetal, geometric, and animal motifs that tribal and nomadic jewellers used when creating Asian nomadic jewellery, the silver and gold objects reflects the diverse functions and varied origins of this Asian nomadic jewellery. This focused exhibition, comprising promised works from the collection of Barbara and David Kipper, represents a sampling of the collection, from ornate headdresses to simple stud earrings, lending insight into their cultural legacy and history.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries in South Asia, cattle-herding nomads from tribes as geographically and culturally diverse as the Ersari and Kuchi of Afghanistan, the Balti of Pakistan, and the Rabari and Ahir of India moved seasonally across Central and South Asia in search of fresh pastures. Although they carried few belongings, these travellers developed a material legacy of adornment practices embodied in the textiles and finely crafted jewellery they wore and bartered, practices that continued as they settled into the village settlements over time.

Tribal affiliation, personal wealth, and spiritual beliefs

Asian nomadic jewellery was made by artists of tremendous skill using a range of traditional techniques still practised today, including sand casting, lost-wax casting, stamping, engraving, enamel inlay, and the careful twisting and soldering of wire. In their original contexts, such objects served as expressions of tribal affiliation, personal wealth, spiritual beliefs, and cultural heritage. They functioned as capital and currency for men as well as women, protected skin from sunburn and insect bites, and stimulated vital pressure points (marma), to enhance fertility and relieve pain and act as talismans.

The pair of temple pendants (muchley) in the exhibition, from Katawaz, were mainly worn suspended from a woman’s hair, and were designed to rest on or next to the ears, as they would be too heavy to hang from the ear lobes. Ribbons were often pulled through the loops to distribute the weight of these earrings over the head and combined with other jewellery.

On the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border

Afghanistan-The Katawaz basin, east of Kandahar, is located along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As Madhuvanti Ghose in the book Vanishing Beauty: Asian Jewelry and Ritual Objects from the Barbara and David Kipper Collection states, these forms have survived and endured practically unchanged over centuries. However, in the course of nomadic peoples’ migration, designs were copied, old jewels were sold and new ones commissioned.

These designs of Asian nomadic jewellery travelled with the migrants and were often adapted en route. This means that much jewellery of this type is difficult to tie to a specific region, or community, and hard to specifically attribute to a particular community – this is especially true for pieces from the areas along both sides of the India-Pakistan and Pakistan-Afghanistan borders. However, broad aesthetic influences from the region have been manifold throughout the long and dynamic history of these ancient lands, now called Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

Asian Nomadic Jewellery and the tribal areas of India

From the tribal areas of India, three objects of Asian nomadic jewellery show the diversity of design in this type of jewellery. The pambadam earrings from Tamil Nadu are only found amongst the Vellalar. This abstract type of personal adornment has long fascinated and intrigued historians and collectors.

They consist of cubes and spheres of varying sizes fabricated from sheet gold and assembled into a stylised form of a coiled snake, with a flared, pointed, tapering hood and flat gold dots representing the spots of the hood.

Deeply imbued with snake symbolism – fertility, life, and eternity – these earrings are worn exclusively by the women of this agricultural community. The Vellalars are an ancient group who were once part of a larger and more influential land-owning community in Tamil Nadu. Their caste was particularly strong during the Chola dynasty (300 BC to AD 1279), providing courtiers and administration to the Chola kings. Worshipping of snakes is a common part of Hindu devotion and there are still many snake temples throughout Tamil Nadu and other regions of South India.

From Odisha (formerly Orissa), in the northeast of India, is an armlet that uses a Hindu temple motif – a temple tower – as its centrepiece. The shikara, (‘ancient temple tower’) mimics a typical architectural detail found in the temples of the region and is a common design element used in these types of armlets. The word means ‘mountain peak’ in Sanskrit and refers to the tower on top of the chamber that houses the most significant deity in the temple.

Jewellery from Gujarat

There is also a striking pair of early 20th-century anklets (todo) from Gujarat in the Kipper Collection, which are on show in the exhibition of Asian nomadic jewellery, and made by one of the many diverse tribes that live in the state. These intricate and heavily worked silver anklets were made by the Maldharis, a community of semi-nomadic herdsmen, historically known as the dairymen of the region. Traditional jewellery still remains an integral part of traditional village dress for both men and women in the community.

In recent decades, loss of land due to population growth and industrialisation has had a significant impact on traditions of adornment around the world. And, as rapid urbanisation continues, preserving and understanding the diverse visual legacies of South Asia’s nomadic cultures remain urgent areas of study and scholarship.

Adornment: Jewelry of South Asia’s Nomadic Cultures is scheduled to run until 9 January, 2021, Art Institute of Chicago,