Waiting for munnu
Dec 01 2011
A visit to Gem Palace in Jaipur turns into a tale of Maharajas and their jewels, creators and their art, and a bizarre, unending wait...
There’s definitely more than a grain of truth to the phrase ‘diamonds are a woman’s best friend’. But I’d like to tweak that a bit: It’s not just diamonds. All kinds of jewels can be a woman’s favourite companions. We’re not just the fairer sex; we’re the glittering sex. So, obviously, a visit to one of the oldest and the most ‘royal’ jewellery houses in Jaipur can be nothing less than a breathtaking experience.
At Gem Palace, you could get lost in the maze of scintillating objects that hold you spellbound, some of them dating back to over a century. It has been quite at the centre of the global spotlight, comparable to brands like Cartier and Tiffany’s in its clientele and craftsmanship. Creating jewellery for some of the most elite jewellery houses in Europe and America, Gem Palace has a permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, for which it has especially designed ‘Ancient Egyptian’ and ‘Ancient Greek’ and ‘Byzantium’ collections. Gem Palace creations are also retailed at organisations like Barney’s in New York and Caribou Jewels in Aspen.
But the reason I am here is not just to marvel at the intricacies of the art. I am here to meet the man who is, apparently, the greater creative force at Gem Palace and the more ‘visible’ one internationally, among the three brothers who run the place now. I have an appointment with Munnu Kasliwal, the youngest of the trio — the elder ones being Sudhir and Sanjay Kasliwal. He has graciously requested me to have lunch with him.
I arrive at Gem Palace at the appointed time, expecting to meet a middle-aged man. Instead, I set my eyes on a young, very attractive and quite un-Indian looking man. He introduces himself as Samir Kasliwal, son of Sanjay and the newest one to join the family business. Born in Italy, Samir came to India four years ago. He’s happy to show me around, but has no clue that I’ve an appointment with his uncle. I call up Munnu. He tells me (as he had the previous day) that he’s very unwell and has a headache, and feels too lethargic to get up. “But”, he quickly adds, “Are you there?” I confirm that. “Please wait, I’ll be there in half an hour. Meanwhile, why don’t you speak to my son Siddharth?”
Siddharth is not around and I begin my tour with Samir. We move through rows and rows of gem-studded jewellery, lots of traditional kundan-meena-polki work that Gem Palace is famous for, and yet more rows of silver objects — with lots of stories behind them. The walls are covered with mustard yellow cloth that has red block prints all over it. This, I’m later informed by Sudhir (the head of the joint family), is the design that’s been there since the time of his great grandfather. This establishment was founded in 1852, when Sawai Jai Singh founded the city of Jaipur and invited jewellers from all over the country. Of course, as Sudhir says, this is the “new showroom”. Before 1852, they had a shop in the “old city of Jaipur”, which “had been there forever”.
I move to the inner room that has two large, throne-style silver chairs and a silver trunk, both with intricate carvings that impart the room a look of old-world charm. One by one, Samir takes out velvet boxes that contain the ‘Indo-Russian’ collection, made around 25 years ago. The first one is a long necklace with strings of pearls and diamonds and a pendant (if it can be called that) the size of a large palm —studded with rose cut diamonds and emeralds. That one costs Rs 1.8 crore. There’s another with a huge emerald up front; there are turban ornaments, belts and armbands, all from the same collection — encrusted with emeralds and diamonds.
“This is called Indo-Russian because the polki work, or the rose cut of the diamond, is Indian. But the designs are inspired by the Russian Czars, particularly the technique of their times of mixing gold with silver to give the pieces an antique look,” Samir explains. He then brings out a “diamond-box” in the same antique look, replete with diamonds all over. Everything is handmade, and may take anywhere from nine months to two years, on an average, to make.
Samir tells me he has studied gemology, but, as he candidly states, “In this business, you can only learn through experience. The study might give you a larger approach but you can’t really learn that way.”
That’s also why, he says, they like to “retain” their workers over generations. “You need skills not to waste the rough stone in cutting and polishing. That needs 10 to 15 years to perfect.”
As he speaks, he flips the pieces over, and shows me the craftsmanship on the reverse. Every single piece in the collection has intricate veins of diamonds and rubies running across its back. I am amazed. And curious.
“This is based on our belief that the body can see and feel as well,” Samir tells me. “There should be a feeling between the diamond and your body. It’s something that only you should know; it’s not for others.” The sentiments are later echoed by Siddharth, when I meet him. For now, my eyes are transfixed on what seems to me the most personal kind of indulgence in the world.
But we must move ahead, there’s more. Much more. Samir brings out a sketch of a person wearing something that, for the lack of a better word, has to be described as a necklace: It flows, in several layers of cascading natural pearls and diamonds, right from the neck of the wearer down to the thighs.
“This was ordered by a special customer,” says Samir, and on a little prodding, reveals that the customer was from the Arab world. “They had given us a fixed timeline for making this piece, and it was to be worn by the bride exclusively on her wedding. We had 90 per cent of our craftsmen working on this one, stopping almost all other work.” The price? He answers after some hesitaton: “around $4-5 million.”
There is another order for a ladies’ purse in silver, which will be set with diamonds, emeralds and rubies, with a finishing in gold filigree work. Aladdin’s cave seems puny beside the treasures opening up here...
We are now walking across the room and I am treated to the sight of two of the oldest pieces the Kasliwals made for the Maharajas, and then bought back when the royals were selling off their assets to pay taxes. There’s a 150-year-old enamelled, diamond encrusted chess-set that features Rajasthani men sitting on miniature horses, elephants and camels, with the king in a howdah atop an elephant. And then, there’s the famous, 165-year-old, enamelled and diamond studded life-size parrot, perched on a branch and holding a rose in its beak. The parrot is actually a liquor flask, I’m told — the liquor is poured in the birds’ head, and sipped from the rose bud in its beak.
You cannot but stand mesmerised as you hold the bird in your hand… there’s a reason why even the British wanted to live like ‘Maharajas’.
By now we have been joined by Sudhir, the head of the family business and Siddharth, Munnu’s son. I suddenly realise that it’s been about an hour, and the one I’d come looking for is still missing. I call up Munnu again.
“Are you still there at Gem Palace?” Munnu asks. I reply in the affirmative. “I am so sorry, it’s just that I’ve been so unwell…just one of those days…” I express my concern for his health, and enquire whether he’s feeling too weak to come over. “No, not weak, I just have this headache…” he trails off, and then adds again, “Please wait, I’ll be there in just half an hour.” Since I am already enjoying myself, I don’t mind waiting another half hour.
There are other things laying claim to my attention. This time it is a sindoor box, which, Siddharth tells me, has taken four years to be created. It has 927 rubies cut, polished and set to such precision that they could be mistaken for meenakari. And 21 pieces of emeralds in diamond setting, like a solid green ring. “This was an art that was dying,” says Siddharth, “and it was really a challenge getting this done. This was made by a third generation worker.”
There are other things here preserved for generations, and are now being restored. And that’s the forte of Sudhir Kasliwal, aside from gemstones, and his first love — photography. Sudhir shows me original, century-old designs made by the chiteras and the restorations compiled by him in a book called “Meenakari of Jaipur”.
“You know, you cannot reproduce the same colours in the meenakari now,” he says wistfully, “and that’s because of the furnace. In those days, there was a special coal furnace while now it’s an electric furnace. Even a papad or a chapatti doesn’t taste the same when cooked on a chulha, compared to when it is cooked on a gas stove!” he muses. He shows me photographs of coal furnaces being used in meenakari, clicked by him around 30 years ago. Sudhir has many other things to show — solid silver objects from the Mughal period, miniature paintings, opal and jade atrdaan and gulabpaash and a zillion other baubles, private collections that dot the insides of the place. “These are not for sale,” he points out. “They are irreplaceable, both in value and in craftsmanship. In fact, we regret having sold some of them now.” I am taken further inside, and there are more ‘collectibles’ on display. Vintage cars, among them a Mercedes roadster restored by Sudhir “from scratch”. A 1941 Packard, a 1956 Cadillac, a 1933 Dodge, Studebaker, Hummer, Hudson … the list can go on. There’s really something to be said for the Kasliwal penchant for collecting.
There’s still more to be seen: The family museum being created on the first floor. Looking more like a hall from a Mughal palace than anything, the walls have designs inspired by the famous Palace of Mirrors, or Sheesh Mahal, from Jaipur’s Amber Fort. Samir says this place took 30 to 40 years to complete, and is used as a “guest room” for “visiting VIPs”. And Gem Palace definitely has a huge list of those. From Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajmata Gayatri Devi, Prince Charles and Princess Diana, King and Queen of Sweden and Emperor of Japan to Jacqueline Kennedy, Judi Dench, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mick Jagger and Richard Gere… you’d get exhausted counting the names. It’s interesting to know, though, that the “royals” don’t really buy the big things, they go for “small stuff, mostly as gifts.” That, Samir says, is because “they’ve inherited all the big stuff already.”
The last stop at Gem Palace is the workshop, again on the first floor, where, in one room craftsmen are busy cutting, polishing, faceting and carving stones, while in another, some are creating the gold “setting”. In a corner there’s one man setting the stones into the gold. In another corner, there is a man carrying out the kundan work with great concentration.
A huge amethyst in the hands of one of the craftsmen suddenly catches my eye. That’s apparently going to be set into a ring inlaid with rubies at the bottom edge. “That’s a poison ring,” the man grins at me, observing my fascination. I look at him closely. “You’re pulling my leg aren’t you?”
His grins widens as he holds up the amethyst to show me that it’s actually a hemisphere, hollow on the inside. Putting it onto the body of the ring, he shows me the spherical space left inside.
“See? That’s where you put the poison. The amethyst is detachable. So you can just crack open the ring and tip the poison into someone’s cup and no one would be the wiser.” I could well imagine its use in the times of the maharajas, but now….
I am still marvelling at the ring when my glance falls at my watch. It’s been another hour and a half. Two and a half hours since my appointed time, to be precise.
Another phone call to Munnu.
“I’m still waiting for you, are you coming?” I ask.
“I’m on my way,” he says. “Are you still there?” he asks.
“I’m just going out to see where I can get a quick bite,” I tell him.
“Ahh… well, I’ll be there
in around half an hour or 45
I’m a little relieved; he says he’s on his way.
After almost another hour and a lunch of burgers, fries and coke later, I’m back at the gates of Gem Palace, having yet another conversation with Munnu on the phone.
“Shall I come over to your place to meet you?” I offer, wondering how ill he is.
“No, no…” he’s obviously reluctant. Then he seems to get an idea. “But tell me, do you know Hot Pink?” I do not. (It’s the Fashion and Lifestyle label created by Munnu along with French jewellery designer Marie-Hélène de Taillac in 2005).
“Well, are any of the guards there? Can you please give the phone to one of them?”I look around, and spotting one of the guards, hand him the phone. (For a bizarre moment I wonder if the man is being instructed to never let the badgering journalist cross those gates again.)
The guard hands the phone over to one of the drivers. In a minute, the man is opening the doors of one of their cars for me. I am beyond puzzled.
“Bhaisahab has asked me to take you to Narain Niwas Palace,” he says. (That’s where Hot Pink is located) I point out to him that I have my own car. “Well, could you please ask the driver to follow us to that place?”
Completely amazed, I agree, wondering where the wild gem… er… goose chase will land me.
A 20-minute drive lands me inside the gates of Narain Niwas Palace Hotel, and I am escorted into the Hot Pink store, which, true to its name, has lots of orange and hot pink thrown in the décor.
There’s a hot pink rug and hot pink and orange cushions in every room. There’s a chandelier that looks exactly like it’s been done in kundan-polki work, and a brass reproduction of the neebu-mirchi combo that every shop in Jaipur hangs at its doorstep to ward off the evil eye. There are clothes, purses, accessories…everything, except, of course, what I’m looking for — Munnu himself.
The store staff doesn’t know he’s expecting me. They suggest I call him up. Again. I’m begin to marvel at my own reserves of patience as I call him up for the nth time.
“I’m here at Hot Pink,” I tell him simply.
“Have you had anything to drink? Would you like some tea or coffee? I’ll tell the staff…”
I want to come straight to the point. “How long will it take you to reach here?”
“Please have something, I’ll be there in about half an hour.”
I really have nothing more to say after that. Sure enough, a boy from the staff comes along to offer me a drink. Water is the best thing to soothe my nerves, and I ask him for that. Then I spot the book — Munnu: Irresistible Jewels, and start flipping through it. That’s like visiting Gem Palace all over again, and for a long time I am completely immersed in the pictures. They are all jewels designed by Munnu, photographed by Eric Deroo. More, many more books and two hours later, I am still waiting. Waiting for Godot. I finally tell the staff to call him up and tell him I’m leaving. Five minutes later, the boy comes to me with a cell phone.
“Sir would like to speak to you.”
Munnu is extremely apologetic. “I’m sorry I have wasted your entire day. I’ve really never been so ill since many years. I think I must have done something really nasty.”
I stay quiet, not knowing quite what to say. He continues, “I have taken an appointment with the doctor. This headache, you know…”
“Wish you a speedy recovery, I think I’ll be leaving now,” I really can’t engage in pleasantries now.
“Oh, but did you like Gem Palace?” he asks.
I tell him it was unbelievably fabulous, but that it was him that I really wanted to meet. And I’d been waiting for six hours now.
“I know, I’m feeling so bad, but I thought you would be enjoying yourself at Hot Pink?” I can’t believe this. “There is a book there by Eric Deroo, did you see it?”
I tell him I have. He begins talking about it. “You know these pictures, he was clicking them to write notes on the back of. I loved them, and I asked him to take as many as he wanted to write down the notes. I really love the way he’s done them. And I asked him to use the pictures of miniature paintings from our collection, so that it would give the book a different feel. I didn’t want all those usual images of maharajas decked in jewels…”
“It really is lovely,” I agree. But I haven’t forgotten the time. “I think I should be going now,” I come back to the point.
“No, no,” he says, much to my surprise. “Please stay, it’s not far from where I am, I’ll reach in 20 minutes.”
I am absolutely amazed now. “Are you sure you can? You seem to be very unwell…”
“No, no. I want to talk to you. That’s why I’ve called you there. Please wait. I’m really sorry about this. I’ll be there.” And the call is disconnected.
I swear to myself that this is the last half hour I’m waiting for him. I move towards the gardens, watch a Rajasthani dance performance, find some really old postcards on display, talk to the artists… all this for having something to do. Samuel Beckett’s play is beginning to seem uncannily similar.
Two more half-hours. And I think it’s time for the curtains to come down. I go back into the store, tell the staff to inform Munnu that I’m leaving, and march back to my car.
I shake my head in disbelief: Beckett’s play was perhaps not so ‘absurd’ after all. I had actually spent the entire day waiting for Godot.
Of course, my wait has been infinitely more fruitful than Beckett’s characters. An afternoon with the most heart-stopping jewels ever will always be unforgettable…don’t you remember? Jewels are still a woman’s best friends!