By Manvi Pant
The Subcontinent’s splendorous and ancient craftsmanship and jewellery design is hailed the world over. We meet two jewellery designers who are taking the region’s heritage forward through their work and through their lives.
Jaipur-based former corporate banker Kiran Kumari hails from Pakistan and married into a Rajput family in India. Her life took a turn not only due to marriage in a new country but also as an entrepreneur when she launched her own fine jewellery brand Firuzeh based in her adopted historic city.
Lahore-based designer and educator Amna Shariff did a fellowship in India, understanding the region’s exquisite craft heritage. Her eponymous jewellery brand has contemporised silver jewellery for modern desi women, making it relatable while also celebrating the Subcontinent’s heritage.
We spoke to both designers about their life and fascinating cross-border experiences.
Corporate banker Kiran Kumari’s life took a complete turn when she migrated from Pakistan to India. Though she found similarities in traditions and customs, adjusting with the food and making new friends took a while. “Often, I would long for biryani and haleem and the way Urdu was spoken in Pakistan,” she smiles.
Born and brought up in Karachi with traditional Rajput values, Kiran divided her time between her metropolitan hometown and her ancestral village near Umarkot, Sindh, where she spent her summer holidays. From a very early age, her family introduced her to ballads sung by their ancestors along with Sufi poetry in the honour of saints like Shahbaz Qalandar.
The environment at home was very conservative. Then how did she become the first Sodha girl of her family to embark on a journey across borders and even beyond? “Well! It took a lot of persistence, persuasion and a flawless academic record,” chuckles the 30-year-old entrepreneur.
Kiran’s father who is the alumnus of Ohio State University, US, resisted sending her to abroad for studies but after long negotiation, he decided to send her to Malaysia where she finished her Majors in economics and got her first job as a corporate banker. But after two years of settling into her banking job, Kiran got married and moved to Jaipur, India.
For Kiran, this change spanned miles and filled her with several mixed feelings. On one side, she fell in love with Jaipur’s glorious legacy of skilled art forms. The fabled city presented her with a treasure trove of handcrafted brilliance that she embraced happily. On the other hand, she longed for her roots, the narrow lanes of her ancestral home, the food, and her friends.
Kiran considers herself fortunate to be married in a family that are patrons of art and architecture. Belonging to the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, the Alsisar family has played an integral role in restoring and reviving the Rajputana heritage.
After getting acquainted with the family business, she gradually started designing the interiors of the Alsisar properties. From sourcing textiles to painting, she realised her true calling. “I was amazed at myself because the combinations and the colour schemes and patterns came very naturally to me.”
The city gave her the opportunity to rediscover herself and she decided to go for a six-month jewellery design course. After designing exquisite pieces for family and friends for five years, in October 2020, she launched her label Firuzeh, which means ‘beauty in simplicity’.
The brand focuses on traditional form of jewellery making. By paying the artisans a fair wage, which encourages them to continue to make things by hand, Kiran ensures that every piece of hers – carefully designed for young working women – is delicately handcrafted and restores within itself traditional values.
At the moment, Kiran markets her products through Instagram and take private appointments at her office but she plans to open a small retail space inside Alsisar haveli where her clients can soak in the experience over a cup of tea.
“I am a hoarder of beautiful things, a trait I’ve inherited from my late maternal grandmother. I believe that a curated space for my favourite things and my favourite creations is something that deserves to be shared.”
Pakistan-based jewellery designer and entrepreneur Amna Shariff is a keeper of rich traditions of the land. Her signature designs are leavened with sensuality in a sophisticated way and engrain age-old customs and rituals into modern, contemporary lifestyle.
Born and raised in Lahore, Amna grew up with three sisters. Her childhood was full of stories her maternal grandmother narrated them about her humble beginnings in Amritsar and migration from India to Pakistan. Her father worked with the Pakistan Army and so the family moved wherever he got posted.
After the war of 1971, he was held as a prisoner of war and brought to India after three gruelling years. Citing this as one of the most traumatic events of her life, Amna shares it was only after the family reunited with him that they found stability.
Despite his experience, her father was always a proponent of Indo-Pak peace and wished for an end to war between neighbours. Our childhood experiences play an integral role in shaping our later life. Amna learnt to become independent from a very young age and her father’s experience also influenced her career decisions.
She first set out to be a journalist, resolved to push her country in a more progressive direction. After graduating from the University of Punjab, she joined a daily newspaper. “That was a time when democracy returned to Pakistan after more than a decade-long military regime. The atmosphere at the newspaper was rebellious and eclectic,” recollects the 57-year-old.
Today, Amna confesses that her time as a journalist was the most transformative time of her life as it shaped her view of the world. “It taught me about importance of arts, culture, activism, tolerance and human rights.” It was around that time that she first visited India to attend a media conference in Bengaluru in 1999.
Soon after her professional stint, she set up an art gallery, Sim Sim, that provided her with creative inspiration. “Other than curating art shows, I encouraged art students from the National College of Arts in Lahore to make small crafts or other creative products to sell at Sim Sim. It also inspired me to explore product designing.”
This urge took Amna to Kensington and Chelsea College, London, where she signed up for a couple of courses in jewellery-making. Soon after she set up her label that specialised in silver jewellery. It’s been 20 years since and there was no looking back.
In 2007, she won a fellowship that gave her option to do her research project anywhere in Asia. “I chose to go to India, obviously, and study the revival of craft in India with a focus on jewellery after the long era of colonialism,” she said as a panellist at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit, where she spoke avidly about keeping the bonds between India and Pakistan alive through art and design.
The six months that she spent in India gave her a rich experience of travelling across the country and greatly influenced her aesthetic as a jewellery designer.
Amna also works at the Pakistan Institute of Fashion Design in Lahore as a volunteer mentor. Her position allows her to work closely with the final-year students of gems and jewellery department, about 90 percent of whom are women.
For this trained silversmith, entrepreneurship has been a 24×7 commitment. In her words, it’s been a long and ongoing journey full of pitfalls, failures, learnings as well as enjoyment that her work never fails to bring.