Of regal status and aesthetics

Of regal status and aesthetics

It is an irrefutable fact, that over centuries, ivory has created a very rich legacy of an invaluable art. Completely urban in nature, it reflected the affluence of the society. Possession of ivory became a status symbol to the extent that Romans, known for their lavish lifestyle, proclaimed that this commodity was restricted to royal usage.

In fact, no civilisation remained immune to the allure of ivory. And India being ivory rich, carved a world of culture, tradition and art in the annals of its history. While the Rig Veda refers to ivory dices being popular among the Aryans, the Ramayana talks about decorative cots made out of ivory.

The Mahabharata has an episode when a king Bhagadatta presents swords with handles of pure ivory to Yudhishtira at the time of the rajasuyayagna to conduct a ritual to anoint the king with water poured through ivory tusks. Arthashastra laid down regulations for ivory collection and pricing, indicating its demand in the market. According to Someswara’s Manasollasa, a person could be sentenced to death for killing an elephant, but if it were to die a natural death, the tusks had to be gifted to the king. The royal hegemony over this raw material continued well into the recent era, as the Palace Administration Report from the Mysore Archives (1927-28) says that about 5,000 tolas of ivory were held in reserve for palace use and the surplus was to be put up for sale under the orders of the Huzur Secretary.

The availability of such huge stocks coupled with royal patronage enthused the carvers to create masterpieces in ivory. This exquisite craftsmanship acquired various forms and can be seen in the ivory inlay work on the doors of Amba Vilas, Mysore Palace (18th century), on a pair of perfectly shaped tusks mounted on a pedestal as a frame for a picture of Mysore Dasara procession, on the intricately chiselled figures of Gods and Goddesses and many more.

These are displayed in museums. It is worthwhile mentioning here that an ivory palanquin gifted by the Mysore rulers to Tirumala is still in use to conduct ceremonial processions at the temple. A palanquin belonging to 19th century Mysore as well as a female figure  are also on display at the National Museum, New Delhi.

An ivory chair belonging to Tippu Sultan can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Tippu’s Gumbaz at Srirangapatna is also decorated with ivory. Bijapur’s
Asgar Mahal too can be added to the list. Long before these kings and rulers, Karnataka had perfected the art of ivory carving even as far back as 2nd century AD and it is said to have reached its zenith by the 15th century.

A 9th century carving on display at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France, is a very stylish depiction of a king sitting on a semi-circular howdah flanked by eight soldiers holding shields and open swords.

An inscription in Arabic at the base of this ivory piece quotes Aihole and the cordial relations between the Rashtrakutas and the Arabs. A delicately carved ivory box in the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, belongs to the 16th century Vijayanagara era. The same museum possesses a 17th century Gajalaksmi seated on a lotus, wearing an elaborately carved crown, necklace, with her sari tucked into her waist-belt, indicating that she is from Karnataka.

The Vijayanagara empire contributed its might to ivory carving. While describing the king’s palace, the narrative of Portugese traveller Dominigo Paes says: “This room is all of ivory, as well the chamber as the walls, from top to bottom, and the pillars of the cross – timbers at the top had roses and flowers of lotuses all of ivory and all well executed so that there could not be better, – it is so rich and beautiful that you would hardly find anywhere another such”.

Fancy objects like combs, animal headed hairpins, dagger shaped pendants, kohl sticks, ear cleaners, mirror handles, necklaces etc too found their worth in the warm, glowing tones of ivory.

Gudigars have been the traditional ivory carvers in Karnataka. But though not from this community, the one who brought fame to the State was Appu Kuttan Achari, who won the national award for his “Chola Queen” in 1965. The specialisation of N Velu Achar, another well known personality, was thrones.

Mysore was famous for inlay work and two artists – Ahmed Ali and Mohamed Makdum – exhibited their expertise all over the country and the ivory door carved by them for the Bangalore Palace won a gold medal at the international exhibition held in Kolkata in 1883-84. With the ban on ivory, a magical world of high artistic merits breathed its last, creating a void that probably no other medium can step into.

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