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  • Writer's pictureAntiques in Oxford

Indian silver

Of all the art forms traditionally associated with India, silver work is perhaps the least well recognised. Until recently, silver that was produced in India for Europeans, was often mistakenly attributed to Scottish origins.

There are two basic categories of Indian silver made during the period of European influence, which lasted from roughly 1750-1950. The first of these is silver of English form and design. Such pieces were produced under the auspices of European jewellery houses which maintained premises in the three Presidency towns: Calcutta (now Kolkata), Madras (now Chennai), and Bombay, (now Mumbai), as a means of attracting retail customers. Although the primary source of revenue for these firms was the transferring of money to Europe through the movement of precious stones, the production of traditional silver objects for local European consumers became an increasingly significant part of their business.

The second category is silver which is European in form and function, but which features distinctly Indian decorative embellishment. Familiar items such as tea sets, salts, peppers, cream and water jugs, etc. adorned with exotic local decoration were produced to satisfy the expatriate community’s demand for items that looked (to a European) the way Indian silver should. These pieces are also significant historically because they represent an effort on behalf of concerned Europeans (like Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard) as well as local hierarchies to establish viable crafts when traditional ‘indigenous’ crafts (such as weaponry) were in jeopardy.

The Prince of Wales’s (later Edward VII) tour of India in 1876 provided an opportunity for each princely state to produce a seminal example of its regional style for presentation. Those few states without such a local idiom quickly developed one for the occasion and the results are silver objects ranging from stately elegance to comic quaintness.

In addition to these two basic categories of silver are pieces in the English taste, but which were designed to fulfil the specific requirements of Anglo-Indian social life. These items include milk and butter coolers, obviously necessary in the intense heat; covered goblets and beakers, which kept insects from spoiling one’s libation; rice bowls; saucepans which transform themselves into serving dishes by means of detachable horn handles; and salts and peppers in a form that fits snugly into a servant’s sash, as everyone travelled not only with his own retainers, but his own personal seasoning as well. As a certain Mrs. Fay observed in her Letters from India of 1780,

"People here are mighty fond of grills and stews which they season themselves, and generally make very hot. The Burdwan stew takes a deal of time; it is composed of everything at table, fish, flesh, and fowl…many suppose that unless prepared in a silver saucepan it cannot be good."

Such silver objects represent the complete synthesis of two divergent traditions and are also highly accessible and useful today. That they are the surviving artefact of a vanished culture only adds to their allure.

If Indian silver gained instant cachet in England when the collection of pieces presented to the Prince of Wales toured the country in 1878-79, international enthusiasm was guaranteed when these treasures were exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1878, an event attended by some 16 million people from all over the world, including William Morris, John Millais, and Edward Burne-Jones. Suddenly, the Indian style was in demand in places as far away as America, where Tiffany produced silver objects in the “East Indian” taste. London shops struggled to keep up with demand for Indian style goods. Liberty’s included Indian silver in their Christmas catalogue, and Elkington & Co. produced exact copies of Indian style pieces.

There were five major and several minor centres of silver manufacture in India for this ‘hybrid’ silver with Indian style decoration. Kashmir, a tourist centre with beautiful lakes and exquisite Moghul palaces and gardens, adapted Moghul motifs for its silver from its famous buildings and fabrics. Kolkata’s silver style features scenes from quotidian life in its surrounding villages. Chennai silver is characterised by scenes from Hindu mythology and representations of deities. Silver from Lucknow, another famous tourist destination, features either a fine decoration derived from coriander flowers or scenes depicting the thrill of the hunt, with animals obscured in forests of palm trees. Kutchi silver, probably the most commercially successful on an international scale, is encrusted with elegant scrolling foliage and often includes carefully articulated animals and birds virtuoso silversmith, Oomersi Mawji, whose grasp of the symbiosis of form and decoration, together with his superlative technique, made his work internationally famous and enabled other Kutchi silver to become popular.

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