The culture, history, and symbolism of the FIA exhibit 'Meditations in Gold: South Asian Jewelry'

FLINT, Michigan — “The exhibition is a celebration of jewels that have survived the melting pot,” explains Dr. Usha Balakrishnan, a scholar of Indian art and culture, a preeminent historian of Indian jewelry, author, and Chief Curator of the World Diamond Museum, to me inside the Ann K. Walch-Chan Gallery at the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA). 

She’s journeyed across the world from India to Flint to usher in the FIA’s newest exhibition 'Meditations in Gold: South Asian Jewelry.' The exhibit promises to offer a captivating journey through the history and cultural significance of South Asian jewelry, from ancient shell and bone necklaces to contemporary gold and gemstone ornaments. 

Curated by the FIA and Dr. Usha Balakrishnan, the exhibition explores the intentional design and cultural connections of jewelry worn for religious, ceremonial, and daily purposes.

“What is common to the entire South Asian region is the love for adornment. In the past, [jewelry] was a display of power and wealth, but they also served important components [of] rites of passage rituals from birth through death,” says Dr. Usha. “Gold and silver play a very important part in people’s lives. Jewels are worn because they keep the mind and the body in equilibrium. Every Indian, even the poorest individual, will always have a piece of gold or silver.”

Draped in beautiful traditional Indian garments and adorned by jewels from her collection, Dr. Usha walks me through the exhibition. In a poised demeanor, she explains piece by piece the historical context and the potential adornment reasoning of the jewelry displayed with a wealth of knowledge that only comes from decades of study. 

"The exhibition is a celebration of jewels that have survived the melting pot,” explains Dr. Usha Balakrishnan in the 'Meditations in Gold: South Asian Jewelry' exhibit on May 16, 2024. (Bryce Mata |
“When you’re Indian, you’re taken to temples, see all the jewelry on the guards. What got me hooked onto this is the trade in gemstones,” she details when I ask how she found herself in love with documenting and sharing her country’s history with jewelry. “As I was reading, it started out of curiosity, and then as you go deeper into something, you fall in love with the subject and get lost. I think it’s important to document it.”

With its mines yielding gold, diamonds, and other precious and semiprecious stones, India has been a vibrant center or “gem bazaar of the world” and “is still the largest gold-consuming country in the world.” Every detail holds meaningful cultural connections, whether a bangle engraved with various animals, a headpiece with flowers carved into it, or necklaces embedded with gemstones, which in India necklaces “have thousands of names for.” 

Dr. Usha illustrates that “everything is design specific, form specific, motive and terminology specific.” The story further compounds as everything on display is handcrafted, adding to each piece’s story. 

“Meditations in Gold: South Asian Jewelry” also delves into the symbolism and personal identity of Indian jewelry and attire and the intricate relationship between these adornments, social hierarchy, and spiritual beliefs. For example, when she notices my gold earrings, she remarks on how piercing the “earlobes represent the sun and therefore the weight of whatever you wear opens up your intellect,” a practice and belief still held today.

“If these jewels could speak, imagine what stories they could tell!" exclaims Dr. Usha about the historical aspects of gold and silver in South Asian culture on May 16, 2024. (Bryce Mata |
Like in many cultures, these beliefs tell tales about the story of creation, its relation to gold and silver, and its symbolic meanings, and they are passed to future generations. One such tale, Dr. Usha announces, is about the golden egg.

“Historically, in our ancient texts, we talk about the golden egg — the embryo from where creation started. The hymn says that the egg splits into two parts. One was gold, and one was silver,” she describes. “The gold represented the sun, energy, and creation. Silver represented the Earth, the moon, and the stars. So, the two metals come together to represent creation as a whole. In India, when a person dies, we always put a tiny piece of gold or silver on the body -– because we cremate the dead— and it’s believed that it pays the boatman to carry the soul from this life to the next.”

As we journey around the exhibit, Dr. Usha hints at how people wear their wealth through jewelry. They did not see the value in putting their wealth in banks. Instead, one could find people wearing layers of earrings. In times of war or famine, a family could pawn or take out a loan on their jewelry for monetary value to feed their families. 

Community members gain a greater understanding of how India is a vibrant center of gems as well as the largest gold-consuming country in the world. (Bryce Mata |
This historical context about jewelry and the relationship Indian people have with it is something Dr. Usha hopes, moments before she gives a lecture to kick off the exhibit, “will make the younger generation realize the importance of holding on to what they have inherited from within the family.”

“I think Flint is a starting point. If these jewels could speak, imagine what stories they could tell! A large number of the pieces in this exhibition come from South India. They represent a culture. The craftsmanship, each one is so individualistic, and every piece in this gallery is handcrafted. And every one of these craftsmen is anonymous. I think exhibitions like this leave room for thought and humanity.”

'Meditations in Gold: South Asian Jewelry' is open to the public now through February 2, 2025. Admission is free for Genesee County residents through the Genesee County Arts, Education, and Cultural Enrichment Millage and on Saturdays for everyone, thanks to Huntington Bank. For more details on the FIA and its exhibits, visit:
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Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.