Wendy Doniger: The Hard and Soft Values of Jewellery

Wendy Doniger: The Hard and Soft Values of Jewellery

Famed Sanskrit scholar and author Wendy Doniger on the persistent myths of jewellery in modern India and how emotions around jewels change with time

American Indologist and scholar Wendy Doniger’s tenacious and riveting writings on ascetism and eroticism, Hindu mythology and religious thought, have been sagacious guides to many keen on scrutiny of and reflection on the idea of India. I am among those for whom her books (those lauded and those critiqued) became bricks laid in the foundation to understand and learn about the fascinating if perplexing interlinks between Indian mythological texts and the humanities.

When I first held a copy of The Ring of Truth, Myths of Sex and Jewelry (Speaking Tiger Books, 2017) a sentence on the copyright page held my attention. “The Moral Right of The Author Has Been Asserted”, it read. It sounded like Wendy Doniger alright; the resolute “Sanskritist” as she calls herself, editor of multiple journals and the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor Chair in History of Religions at the University of Chicago.

The Ring of Truth is a distracting work because it stokes cross cultural and historical curiosity. Bookmarking it again and again, I found myself diverting to look up Art Nouveau jewellery, traditions in medieval Europe, Victorian jewels, rings given by kings to queens, read other references to Valmiki’s Ramayan in which Hanuman carries Lord Ram’s signet ring to Sita imprisoned in Ravana’s Lanka. Doniger uses the persistence of circular jewellery—rings, bracelets, necklaces, anklets—to speak of human frailty, folly, fixation and sexual fervour, of wives and mistresses, kingdoms and clans thus laying bare entire existences.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Flora Pendant” By Louis Aucoc (1850-1932).

‘Are Diamonds a Woman’s Best Friend?’ is among the most enjoyable sections of the book (read the excerpts here). Through research, anecdote and analysis, Doniger exposes the clever campaigns of De Beers diamonds and how the myth that a diamond ring stands for love and commitment is first and foremost just that—a myth. Besides that, rape and betrayal, erotic passion and romantic pining, divorce, life in the cuckold, lies and truths, this book has many story gems.

Doniger’s own love for jewels especially rings shines through the text.

She instantly agreed to this interview even though I may have been frothing over email in my fan girl moment. Her incisive arguments make it a supple, feminist conversation as she argues how “jewellery still stands for all the things that feminism abhors—that men pay women for sex, that beauty is the most important quality a woman has and so forth…”

That and why she loves her favourite “ring” besides other reflections on jewellery in modern India are all here. Edited excerpts.


Photo: debeersgroup.com

A vintage campaign of De Beers Diamonds.

SV: Jewellery in India historically signified class. New classes emerged though in post-Independence India. The Trophy Wives, the Kitty Party Gangs, The New Intellectuals, The Causeratti, Ikat wearing jholawallas, vintage collectors, Fabindia customers, writers, journalists…Now there is a Fashion Left in jewellery—young girls wearing “statement” jewellery. Do you sense a new, class hierarchy through jewellery? 

WD: I am more of a mythologist than a historian, which means that I am more interested in symbolic patterns that do not change than in the changes. But even I can see the ways in which jewellery simultaneously maintains its old values—for people continue to display their jewels, ostentatiously, for all of the old reason—and is used to make revolutionary statements. So some women in India, particularly those conscious of class and caste, continue to adorn themselves with as many carats as they can get, but younger women on the Fashion Left often wear no jewellery, or anti-jewellery of various sorts, spitting in the eyes of the rich women with their trophy jewellery. I think the issue is more one of income than of caste, but of course, the two are joined at the hip. The categories remain intact: jewellery still stands for all the things it has stood for over the centuries. Things that feminism abhors—that men pay women for sex, that beauty is the most important quality a woman has and so forth…culminate in what I have called the “slut assumption”—the belief that if a woman has a piece of expensive jewellery she got it by going to bed with some man. Even while feminists challenge those destructive, never entirely true and nowadays hardly ever true, but persistent attitudes to women, they persist.

Jewellery exchange is still part of modern, urban marriages even when the bride and groom fix their alliance themselves. Though conversations are mostly silenced if this is dowry. Ostensibly evolved and highly educated, financially independent girls also co-opt jewellery purchase and ostentation into their bridal stories. It crosses the feminism barrier. Why is that? 

Perhaps you underestimate the persistence of myth. Myths are stories that people remember and allow to influence them even when they know that these beliefs are neither true nor to their advantage. For many, many centuries, jewellery was the only source of wealth that a woman could have, the only hope of surviving if she left her husband, the only thing she could hope to pass on to her daughters. These years are not easily tossed away any more than all the caste strictures that were outlawed in the Indian Constitution in 1950 have succeeded in removing the caste injustices that persist in India today. It is, however, always good to have more just legislation, and new ideas about women’s liberation are already having some effect in fighting against these old bad habits.


Photo: Shutterstock

Jewellery is an intrinsic part of wedding trousseaus and traditions in India.

In India, jewellery is largely about “buy back”, about financial investment and “trust”. Yet dozens of new designers sell it as luxury or art—mixing semi-precious with precious, diamonds with wood, gold with ceramics etc. The Ring of Truth has many instances of jewellery that matters to people for its notional value. In that light, how do you view contemporary jewellery trends in India? 

The idea of thumbing your nose at the financial value of jewellery by mixing “real” gems with artificial ones is one that we encounter from time to time in the 20th century, and it is interesting to see it emerging in India now, too. There have also been times when fake jewellery was valued over real jewellery precisely because one did not have to worry about it being stolen. The rise of costume jewellery does indeed suggest an evolution in taste and also plays a part in the feminist attempt to free women from the shackles of “real” jewellery. The workmanship of Benvenuto Cellini, or the fabulous Art Nouveau jewellery of the 19th and 20th centuries, has always added great value to the “naked” value of the stones. But this has not always been so in India. I remember being astonished many years ago in India when I went to buy a piece of intricately worked gold jewellery, and the jeweller would simply weigh it to determine its value. In America, I would have been charged a great deal more for the workmanship, and indeed, I chose the particular piece in question precisely because I admired the skilled workmanship.

Across the chapter ‘Are Diamonds a Woman’s Best Friend’ and reflections on the engagement ring or relationships and rings in other parts of the book, primarily men buy jewellery for women and thus establish a certain intimacy with them. In your work, did you find if the engagement ring became an object of disinterest, resentment, hurt or revenge once the marriage or relationship ended? 

Yes, there are many stories in which the ring of truth turns out to lie, and to become the symbol of betrayal rather than love. Often this produces a tension between the simple monetary value of the ring, which presumably remains intact, and the emotional value, which becomes negative. As Ophelia says to Hamlet when she returns the gifts he has given her, “Take these again, for to the noble mind, rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.” But, sometimes the jewellery does not “wax poor” even when the lover proves unkind. Elizabeth Taylor once remarked, after divorcing Richard Burton (for the second time), after he had given her a notoriously expensive diamond ring, “Well, at least I will have the ring.”

On the other hand, there are also examples when the ring turns out to be a fake jewel but a token of real love, and remains valuable for that reason. In the film Random Harvest, Greer Garson cherishes the cheap blue beads from her husband who disappeared more than the valuable emerald her second husband gives her. Nowadays, there are websites about wonderful, often bitterly funny, occasionally illegal, things you can do with your diamond engagement ring when your boyfriend turns out to be a cad. In my own case, I kept and wear the ring my ex-husband had given me because it reminds me of the way I felt about him when he gave it to me at the beginning of the marriage, which I keep uppermost in my mind rather than the way I felt when we broke up. Also because it is a wonderful ring, with a rare, ancient Greek stone engraved with a figure of a centaur, and I have always loved horses. It is often impossible to separate the hard and soft values of a piece of jewellery.


Photo: Warner Bros/imdb

Greer Garson and Ronald Colman in the movie Random Harvest (1942).

Since you wrote the book and/ or now, what remains your most loved, fondest piece of jewellery? 

The piece of my own jewellery that I love best, that I look at every day and always wear when I go out, is one that I wrote about in my book. I value it because it reminds me of my parents, whom I loved very much (I wrote a book about them a couple of years ago, The Donigers of Great Neck: A Mythologized Memoir) and also because it is such a clever piece of jewellery, and so beautifully worked. It fits very comfortably on my hand, and does not snag even if I wear tight gloves. It is like wearing a whole world on my hand, the world of my youth, of my parents’ house with the books and paintings, of all the gentle customs that vanished so long ago from America, or perhaps from my youthful illusions of what America was.

Here is what I wrote in the book:

When my parents were first married, during the Depression, there was not enough money for any ring at all. But years later, when my father had become a successful publisher, he had Cartier make a gold ring for her, studded with diamonds and rubies, a kind of retrospective wedding ring. It was in the form of a “gimmel” ring, from the Latin gemelli, “twins”: two rings joined together by a pivot so that when united they constitute a single ring. Often there is a hand on each circlet and when they are brought together the hands clasp. Sometimes there is a third ring, with a heart, which appears when the hands are separated, and on which are usually inscribed the names of the lover and his beloved, “Antony to Cleopatra.” This was the form of the ring my father gave my mother. But he had the heart inscribed “REF to SHU,” which was her favorite volume of the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911), with its superb essays on Renaissance, Romanticism, Schiller, Schubert, Shakespeare, and so forth.