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Indian Silver of the Raj

Indian silverwork was known in antiquity and its style was dictated through the centuries by the demands and needs of its consumers: primarily, as elsewhere, the wealthy, the aristocracy and houses of worship. This led to many wares unique to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia: rosewater sprinklers, betel boxes and cutters, fly whisks, various sacred and ritual vessels, etc.

With the creation of the East India Company 1600, these forms became known in England through brisk and profitable trade. By economic and military force, the Company became the de facto ruler India in the 18th century and, after an unsuccessful rebellion against them in 1857, the British Raj was established in 1858, with India becoming the “crown jewel” in the Empire.

Lot 502: Indian Presentation Silver Kashkul-Form Bowl

Throughout the Raj (1858-1947), Indian craftsmen adopted western styles to meet the demands of an ever-increasing British presence: goblets, teapots, sugar bowls, milk jugs.  While the forms were taken from the West, the designs were drawn from native flora (the chinar leaves of the plane tree, coriander leaves, acacia flowers) and fauna (elephants, cobra, buffalo). The execution of these designs, as well as the use of specific motifs ,were regionally distinctive. Silver from Kashmir, for instance, often replicated the buta motifs of their famous pashmina scarves (known in the west as “Paisley” after the Scottish town that reproduced the textiles). Calcutta silver was known by its charming rural scenes, and Kutch silver was distinguished by its intricate floral scrolls, often with discreetly hidden native fauna. By the late 19th century, however, the most popular style was the swami style of Madras as exemplified by P. Orr & Sons and featuring richly embossed figures of Hindu deities. 

Indian silver of the period is of widely varying finesses, as the strict sterling silver standard attested by hallmarking in the U.K. was never imposed and the raw material was taken from many different sources, including rupee coins, old and scrap silver, and bullion imported from China, Africa and the Arabian coast. Additionally, tin, not copper, was the preferred alloy, producing a distinctive grey-white color.

Indian craftsmen and design were showcased in International Exhibitions and Royal events during the Raj, such as the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1875-76 and the Durbars of 1877, 1903 and 1911. These displays, however, were carefully curated to British taste by Imperial “commission-wallahs”. In the 20th century, with the emergence of modern styles and (not coincidentally) the Indian independence movement, craftsmen revived and popularized the traditional forms. 

This collection represents an eclectic assemblage Indian silver of the Raj, with fine examples of various regional styles and others showing the Indian influence into Southeast Asia and China.  New Orleans Auction Galleries is pleased to offer this rare and unusual collection.

 

Further Reading:

Vidya Dehejia, Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj (Ahmedabad, India: Mappin Pub., 2008) 

Wynyard R. T. Wilkinson, Indian Silver 1858-1947 (London: the author, 1999)

S.K. Pathak, Indian Silver (New Delhi: Roli Press, 2008)

David C. Owens, Burmese Silver Art (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2020)

Paul Bromberg, Thai Silver and Nielloware (Bangkok: River Books, 2019)

 

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