Arts and Culture
In 1881, Raja Sir Sourindro Mohun Tagore (1840-1914), member of the Bengali bhadralok community and a distant relative of Rabindranath Tagore, published the final part of his thousand-page volume Mani-Málá, or a Treatise on Gems. The book is difficult to categorize as it was translations of Sanskrit texts, a synthesis of European writing, and a collection of observations from all over Asia. My paper focuses on its illustrations and text regarding gemstone cutting and the multiple meanings of the ‘brilliant cut’ in South Asia in the late nineteenth century. Tagore implies a deep ambivalence about the fashion for gemstones cut into regular facets for increased uniformity and reflectivity, which defined the brilliant cut. On the one hand, it symbolized Western modernity, ‘rationalized’ the stone, and cut away defects that were spiritually malevolent. On the other, because enabling the onlooker to see into the center of the stone and judge its character had been the goal of South Asian lapidaries for centuries, the new fashion for brilliants disallowed this kind of seeing and, potentially, disabled the spiritual efficacy of the gem. Tagore is best known for his musicology and support of British imperialism,being the first scholar to translate traditional South Asian music into Western visual nomenclature. This paper uses Mani-Málá to assess debates over Westernization, Hindu spiritualism, and the visual form and meaning of gemstones in the bhadralok community in the late nineteenth century.