WORDS BY BELA KAPOOR
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY NAVDHA MALHOTRA
New Delhi, India
I think I saw these gold buttons for the first time during my sister’s wedding in the year 1979. They were so beautiful and unusual and I remember telling my mother immediately that I wanted them.When we were younger, buttons with ghungroos (bells) and other trinkets were quite popular. These were so pretty and different that I just had to have them, and by the time I was pursuing my Masters (in 1982-83), they were mine! I have seen photographs of myself in college where I’m wearing the buttons, which is why I know exactly how long I’ve had them for.
They used to belong to my maternal grandfather, my nana, Sri Ram Puri, who must have bought them in the 1920s or 1930s. When he died, my mother received two sets of these buttons from my nani, his wife. One was given to my sister, Dolly, and I got these ones.
They are made from pure gold, and engraved with a geometric pattern. I use them regularly; as you can see, I have put them on a chain. This is not only because I don’t want to lose them, but also following in the tradition of how they were once worn. In earlier times, men used to normally have four buttonholes on their kurtas. Families that were well off had gold cufflinks, and in the same way they had these buttons. Men didn’t usually wear jewellery so buttons like these gave them a chance to wear gold and accessorize, and very subtly state their place in society. The set my sister has have minakaari (enamelling) work on them and I’ve been thinking of asking her to give those to me as well, because I don’t think she uses them…
At all times, regardless of the fashion trend, I’ve had least a few kurtas where I simply attach these through the buttonholes using the chain. In fact, I’ve got kurtas specially stitched with the double button style – buttonholes on the top and the bottom- so that I can use them. People always notice them- perhaps because they are a fading feature in society, or maybe because of their beauty- and I tell them quite proudly that they belonged to my nana.
My mother was an only child and because she was a daughter she didn’t receive anything, owing to the inheritance laws at that time. In a stroke of unfairness, all the property and associated items went to her cousins. She only received some jewellery, including these buttons, from my nani. Other belongings like furniture and luxurious items like the gramophone, probably came to her later, after she was married, either because no one else wanted them or my father expressed an interest in them. It wasn’t that she was unhappy with the decision, she’s never expressed sadness about not receiving anything. “It wasn’t mine to begin with, so how can I be upset that I didn’t get it”, she says.
I have inherited bits of these stories from my mother, but I didn’t really get a chance to interact my grandfather and that is definitely one of the reasons why I have preserved so many objects belonging to him. These buttons are more special because of another reason, a funny incident- Despite these buttons being made from pure gold, I consider them a part of everyday wear. But all of a sudden one day, in 1991-1992, I couldn’t find them. I asked everyone and looked everywhere, and even checked with my mother in case I had left them at my parent’s house in Chandigarh. But two or three months later, they were still missing and I remember being quite sad and anxious about losing them. One day, I picked up an old purse to go somewhere and my sister-in-law pointed out that the zip of the bag was broken. Later, she took it to a repair shop near her house to get fixed. While checking the bag, the repairman realised that there was something inside the lining, opened it up and gave whatever was inside to her. When she came home, she asked me if I’d lost something and then handed me the buttons. Imagine my surprise and delight! I couldn’t even believe this happened, that the buttons had been with me all along. The repairman could have so easily kept them.
Sometimes, I do think to myself about where they originated from, how they made their way to me and how they have made their way back to me after being misplaced. Now I keep them more carefully and locked in my cupboard. I will probably give them to my son, hopefully he will use and preserve them.