Munnu Kasliwal was a distinct designer in many ways, but what catapulted him into the international spotlight was his ability to take old-fashioned things and ideas – whether an ancient stone or an ancient technique – and create something that the modern world could embrace. “It is the kind of jewelry that is ageless; it could be worn by a 27-year-old or a 70-year-old,” says his son, Siddharth. “He was able to contemporize things in quite a flawless manner.”
Those ideas where best represented in his Indo-Russian collection, which was inspired by Victorian and Russian jewels, but lacks the stuffiness of the originals. Munnu’s Indo-Russian designs felt anything but antique, and that was also true in his Contemporary Mughal collections, which fused the historic era’s stylings and motifs with today’s silhouettes. (A bold 22-karat gold cuff, for instance, is dotted with classic lotus flowers made of exquisitely calibrated tourmalines).
But there was another way in which Munnu looked to the past. Indian architecture was particularly influential on Munnu’s collections and, most notably, the Jali work found on the mirrors in the Sheesh Mahal in Jaipur’s Amber Fort, as well as the screens surrounding the cenotaphs inside the Taj Mahal. (Jali work was to the Mughal era what laser-cut designs are to the modern era).
Those mirrors were the direct inspiration for many of Munnu’s stone settings. And the Jali work? It was found on the back of many of his most prized pieces. An Indo-Russian style necklace, for instance, is beautiful enough from the front. Made from large rose-cut diamonds and natural Basra pearls, the largest diamond serves as a door to a diamond-studded portrait of the Taj Majal. But the back of the necklace is just as intriguing, made of intricately pierced gold and silver work, which is also encrusted with diamonds. And that was a simple back. Many necklaces are decorated with filigree or Jali work that depicts a scene, such as a deer in a forest.
"It’s not only what I see, it’s what the body sees as well,"
“He would say, ‘it’s not only what I see, it’s what the body sees as well,’when asked why he would put so much detail into the back of a piece,” Siddharth explains. “Nobody was doing this kind of filigree or Jali work behind the pieces. But for him, it was worth experimenting.”Some pieces could take six or seven years to get right. Munnu had no trouble destroying something if he didn’t think it was up to standards — once, he broke a piece four times before finding satisfaction on the fifth try. Other pieces only took two or three days, but for him, it wasn’t about the money lost. “He was an artist, not a jeweler,” Siddharth says.
Indeed, Munnu was a perfectionist in a way most architects can never afford to be.