by Salam Kaoukji,. Thames and Hudson, September 2017. 504 p. ill. ISBN 9780500970805 (h/c), $75.00.
Reviewed November 2017
This impressive catalog is the ninth in a series by Thames and Hudson on the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. The focus of this publication is royal weaponry of the Indian sub-continent, consisting of knives and swords, with decorated handles and scabbards, which had been the property of Indian princes.
The volume reflects centuries of trade and warfare among Muslim and Indian populations in the form of decorative weaponry. By concentrating on knives with wootz steel blades, with enameled, carved, and jeweled handles, reflecting the techniques of Indian jewelers, Salam Kaoukji (author and curator) provides an important contribution to the study of Indian decorative art. Her descriptions sometimes reflect an essentialist view of the Indian use of color. While the weapons were used for violent purposes, they were sumptuously decorated and are presented here as art objects, thus re-conceptualizing weapons of war into objects of beauty.
Kaoukji offers historical and political context for the works of art within the framework of the sultanates of India (1206-1526) through the Mughal period (1526-1857), providing a neat chronology by which to study the objects. Within this context, she systematically discusses the materials and techniques involved in the construction and decoration of the weaponry. As part of the discussion, she tackles the categorization and nomenclature of the weapons by challenging, clarifying, and augmenting the established, but outdated nineteenth-century scholarship.
The volume is richly illustrated with full-sized and detailed photographs of weapons and their handles, of varying shapes and sizes. The nomenclature of objects, establishes the organization of the book. There are helpful appendices consisting of a bibliography, glossary, picture credits, a concordance of inventory and catalog numbers and an index.
A similar publication is Indian Jewellry: Dance of the Peacock by Usha R. Bala Krishnan and Meera Sushil Kumar (India Book House, 1999). It is a richly illustrated catalog of carved and inlaid jewelry, organized geographically. It has helpful notes, a glossary, bibliography and index as well.
Catalogs of this type allow readers to sufficiently educate themselves on the topic within a single volume. While Indian jeweled weaponry is not the most frequently studied material within the art historical canon, this is an ideal work for a research collection which includes the artistic production of the Indian sub-continent. It would also be useful in a museum library. The text and images could contribute to an informative and visually appealing book display. The price point is reasonable for this high-quality publication.