Archive for India

Gods, Serpents, Leaves and Flowers: Indian Silver for the Raj

Posted in Christine Cariati, Design, Fine & Decorative Arts, Flora & Fauna, XC with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2010 by Christine Cariati

by Christine Cariati

Chinar Leaf Bowl, Kashmir, c. 1885
Paul Walter Collection

Note: All objects shown in this post are from the Paul Walter collection unless otherwise indicated.

The Raj, the period of British occupation in India, lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. During this time, the silversmiths of India produced an incredible array of beautiful luxury tableware—including tea services, bowls, goblets, ewers, cutlery, gravy boats and card cases. Initially these pieces were made as gifts and for use in the homes of the British in India. They were also exhibited widely in Europe at expositions and shows. One of these was the Paris exposition of 1878, where the tea service for 12 given by a maharaja to the visiting Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1876 was on display, along with many other examples of Kashmiri silver. Indian silver soon became very sought-after in British and European markets. The London establishments Liberty & Co., Regent Street and Proctor & Co., Oxford Street, set up workshops in India to meet the demand.

Calling Card Case featuring Krishna, Madras, c. 1880

A tradition of European silversmithing had been established in Madras and Calcutta in the 1760s, but by the 1860s the Indian silversmiths had made it their own—wedding their traditional designs and love of embellishment with objects to suit the needs of the British.

Chinar Leaf Tea Service, Kashmir, c. 1885

The British love affair with tea began when they came across it in China, and silver tea services had long been a staple in the elegant English home. So when the British came to India and discovered that two of Indian’s greatest natural resources were tea (from northern India) and silver, the result was inevitable.

Workshop drawings of Oomersee Mawjee & Sons of Kutch
various dates, c. 1899-1904

What makes this work so fascinating is the ingenious blending of Indian motifs with western forms. These pieces have tremendous visual interest, intricate detail and texture. The Indian silversmiths created a wonderful hybrid, objects no longer strictly Indian or western, but an interesting amalgam of the two.

Kutch Silversmith at Work
Sketch by Percy Brown after John Lockwood Kipling, 1902-03

Another fascinating aspect of silver work produced during the Raj is that the various Indian regional design traditions, adapted for these new uses, were reflected in the objects. The silver from Kutch in Gujarat, in far western India, is heavily embossed, filled with all-over curves and arabesques. The patterns appear quite abstract and are often embellished with wonderful details such as a tea pot handle fashioned in the shape of a serpent, or a spout in the form of an elephant’s head.

Kutch teapot with snake handle and elephant-head spout, c. 1880
Private collection

Calling Card Case with Floral Pattern, Kutch, c. 1880

Four Pepper Pots, Kutch, c. 1885-1910

The silver produced in Calcutta contains very different imagery, depicting idyllic scenes from rural Bengali life—workers picking fruit, fetching water, planting or harvesting grain—as well palm trees, and an occasional cow or itinerant holy man.

Beaker with Village Scenes, Calcutta, c. 1885

The so-called Swami silver produced in Madras was filled with Hindu imagery—gods and temples, processions and scenes of music and dance. Much of this work was produced by P. Orr & Sons, a British firm established in India in 1876.

Five-piece Tea Service (detail)
P. Orr & Sons, Madras, c. 1876

P. Orr & Sons showroom, Madras, c. 1899
Courtesy: City Palace Museum, Udaipur

Gravy Boat, Madras, c. 1890

The silversmiths of Kashmir produced some of the most beautiful pieces of the period, highly embellished with botanical imagery. The British had a presence in Kashmir by the early 19th century and greatly admired the crafts of Kashmir, including the weaving. Of particular interest was the “shawl pattern” or paisley. The paisley, which looks like an elongated and stylized mango, got its name from the town of Paisley in Scotland, where many shawls of this pattern were woven. By 1887, silversmiths were incising paisley designs on plain silver against a background of intricately incised leaves, flowers and trees of the region, three of which dominated the designs. Coriander was depicted on the stem, often in continuous scroll work. The poppy, a very popular motif in Mughal art, was depicted both as closed buds and in full flower. The chinar leaf (from the Oriental plane tree (platanus orientalis) was often used in repoussé, with a background design of poppies or coriander (see a superb example at top of post.)

Lobed Stemmed Bowl, Kashmir, c. 1880

Chinar Leaf Plates, Kashmir, c. 1890

Until the late 20th century, the silver for the Raj, like other art of mixed heritage, was not widely valued by scholars who considered it “impure” and outside classical traditions. Fortunately, aesthetic horizons have expanded in recent years and this wonderful work is now getting the attention it deserves.

Wider Connections

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj by Vidya Dehejia
The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott

Lord Vishnu’s Miniature Footprints

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2008 by Liz Hager

By LIZ HAGER

Vishnu’s Footprints, 19th century,
watercolor and gold, Lahore, Pakistan, 33.5×29 cm
(photo ©2008 Liz Hager)

In Indian culture, the foot is considered to be the vehicle of humble and base activities. Veneration of the foot of a respected person is the ultimate gesture of humility or devotion. In India reverence is expressed by touching the feet or taking dust from a teacher’s feet upon one’s head.

Among the Hindus, the tradition of vishnupada (the footprint of Vishnu) is an ancient belief supported by several myths. One, Vayu Purana, tells how Vishnu as a dwarf tricked the demon king Bali (Mahabali) into granting him three steps. He stepped over the whole universe, on the last crushed the demon. The Hindus most probably appropriated the custom from the Buddhists, as the footprints of Buddha have been a source of worship since antiquity.  There are other myths of vishnupada—they vary in character and setting—but the Vayu Purana seems to me the most heroic.

Coincidentally, the Islamic faithful believe that whenever Muhammad trod on a rock his foot left an imprint, although this was not sanctioned by the orthodoxy. The Islamic veneration of feet has antecedents in both Judaism and Christianity. When Islam arrived in India under the Mughal rulers (beginning in the 16th century), the worship of footprints was already well established. Thus, it was an easy matter for Muslims to continue their practice, and shrines for the Prophet’s footprint were built across the northern provinces of Indian and in parts of contemporary Pakistan.

Began by the Persians, miniature painting reached full flower in India under the Mughal emperors between the 16th to 18th centuries. Some as small as a few inches in dimension, they accompanied manuscripts. Like the one above, miniatures typically display meticulous and detailed workmanship, warm and vibrant scheme of colors (the colors of India herself) and a charming stylization that often eschewed perspective and natural accuracy. Miniatures embrace all manner of themes, religious and not, but generally depict a particular human activity or crucial mythic moment.

The print above is part of a 19th-century collection of miniatures (in Berlin’s Ethnological Museum) about the everyday activities of the Hindu faithful—worship, leisure, playing Parcheesi. It seems to me the arabesque floral design around the edges and the gold owe something to Islamic traditions appropriated during Mughal times.  It would be fitting if the symbols on the footprints referenced reflexology, but I don’t know that for sure.

The city Gaya in eastern India is most associated with the vishnupada myth and the Vishnupada Temple there is said to mark the actual spot where the deity left his footprints on a rock when he defeated the demon. The footprints are set in a silver basin and are the chief object of worship in the Temple. This miniature would seem to reference the Gaya spot, if not actually, then metaphorically.

Wider Connections
Edward Tyomkin—The Hindu Pantheon: An Introduction Illustrated With 19th Century Indian Miniatures
Feet & Footwear in Indian Culture
More Indian Miniatures

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