The Mawji-emption of Silverware

Rashmi Rajgopal of Saffronart looks at how Oomersi Mawji’s creations set a benchmark for silverware, and turns the spotlight on some of the pieces featuring in the upcoming Saffronart Autumn Auction of Fine Jewels and Silver.

Mumbai: Many legends are like parasites in a horror film: they thrive on a potent dose of exaggerated retellings and an insatiable audience willing to consume these tales and pass them on. They’re the conniving ones that will ferret you out of your underground lair of elusion. You’re cornered, and they’ve got that slick, deceptive smile plastered all over their faces. You want to obliterate them with your bazooka. Your sense of discretion is your ammo and you load your weapon. But they’ve got allies, allies in their teeming millions that have their own bazookas loaded with a concoction of rumour-mongering and desperation. You’re suddenly falling to pieces. Their lies have outnumbered your sanity. Then the minority swaggers in, armed with proof, ripping through the falsity that nearly got you. You turn around in slow-mo to face your saviour(s), your eyes wide with incredulity…

“You’re Welcome,” says the Baluster Silver Mug, spawn of Oomersi Mawji (Lot 102) Image Credit:

“You’re Welcome,” says the Baluster Silver Mug, spawn of Oomersi Mawji (Lot 102)
Image Credit:

And now you want to know all about your new best silverware friends who saved you from the jaws of deception. You want to know everything: where they are from, what puts them in the minority of “true” legends and gives them that strange light glowing at the back of them as if they’re apostles. Telling exaggerations apart from truth requires proof, and you want to do your bit to ensure their survival. They’re Oomersi Mawji’s creations, after all.

You start by asking for a little background on Mawji’s hometown of Cutch and what gave an edge to silverware originating from that region. Cutch was famed for its thriving cultural and political scene until the 19th century. Cursed first with a great earthquake and then with famine, many of its citizens were forced to migrate to the greener pastures of Karachi and Mumbai, both of which became centres for silver trade. You can imagine the massive culture drain that followed. Redemption lay entirely in the hands of the Mahraos of the region, and redeem it they did. Mahrao Bahadur set the ball rolling with his committed encouragement of the arts, especially silverware, in the region.

Sure, the Mahraos deserved credit for bringing Cutch silver to the world’s attention, but aggressive marketing alone doesn’t sustain anything for too long. Here’s where our hero, Mr. Mawji, steps in. Oomersi Mawji fought his way up the rungs of reputation, first by switching family professions and then by stumping already established silversmith families with his stunning detailing of works and an acute display of craftsmanship. This feat was possible thanks to the very high standards of purity of silver (95-98%) used by Cutch artisans, whose sources were Mecca, Zanzibar, Bombay and the “Swahili Rand”, or from customers (Wynyard R.T. Wilkinson, Indian Silver 1858-1947, 1999: The Chameleon Press Ltd., 68). Sources of inspiration included a blend of Islamic and Hindu designs found on a stone-carving of a 15th century mosque in Ahmedabad (Ibid, 66) and 17th century Portuguese pottery from Coimba. Several foreign expositions later, his works became immensely popular during the British Raj and he was deemed “best silversmith of nineteenth-century India” (Ibid, 69). His luck didn’t just end there: he was also appointed as court silversmith to the Maharaja of Cutch. Things bode well. The rest is history. Silverware was soon produced by Oomersi Mawji & Co. All this was short-lived; they closed up shop in the 1930s. Which makes their works all the more valuable and Mr. Mawji a true legend.

“Here’s your proof,” says the Raised Silver Centrepiece, Oomersi Mawji & Co., Bhuj (Lot 101) Image Credit:

“Here’s your proof,” says the Raised Silver Centrepiece, Oomersi Mawji & Co., Bhuj (Lot 101)
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Okay, he may have gotten lucky, you say, still in need of much convincing. So your eyes dart over the Oomersi Mawji pieces before you. You pick up the Rare Trophy Cup (Lot 104) and inspect it. At the centre of the acanthus repoussé motifs, you see a lion pouncing on a helpless deer. The expression of terror and doomed resignation on the deer, the single-minded ferocity of the lion, those leave you nodding your head in approval. Then you slide your finger over the pattern between the spaces. Fish scales, or armour rings. You’d have thought they would step back and admire their work for the lucid scrolling, the smooth contours and accuracy of expressions, but no—Mawji & Co. went right ahead and filled all that space with irreplicable intricacy. Of course, such detailing needs a mark, and you find that at the base of the trophy: O.M. Bhuj.

"We kid you not,” says the Rare Trophy Cup of Oomersi Mawji & Co., Bhuj (Lot 104) Image Credit:

“We kid you not,” says the Rare Trophy Cup of Oomersi Mawji & Co., Bhuj (Lot 104)
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You now feel slightly guilty for having expressed doubt at your saviours. But they’re okay with it, after eliciting a promise from you to view them at the Saffronart Online Auction taking place on the 23rd and 24th of this month. You also find their cousins Silver Tankard, Lot 105 and (yet another) Baluster Silver Mug, Lot 103 to be commanding the same degree of admiration.
For the complete family of silverware, view the online catalogue. Better yet, drop by and see them for yourself.

Wynyard Wilkinson on ‘Silver from the Indian Sub-Continent 1858-1947’ at Saffronart

Emily Jane Cushing shares a note on a talk given by Wynyard Wilkinson at Saffronart in London

Wynyard Wilkinson introducing the evenings event.

London: On Wednesday 15 May, before the preview of the new Saffronart exhibition ‘Silver From the Indian Sub-Continent 1858-1947’ author and Antique silver specialist Wynyard Wilkinson held an informative discussion on the decorative nature of the silver articles on display.

Wynyard Wilkinson describing ‘Cutch’ style silverware.

Despite the many aspects of silver production during the colonial period in India, given the diverse nature of decorative designs varying from region to region, Wilkinson touched on all the key styles. He noted the aesthetic features and purposes of various pieces, and underlined the relationships between geographical areas and designs, also noting that various regional designs often inter-link.

Wynyard Wilkinson discussing Kashmiri style silverware.

First, Madras “Swami Ware” was taken in to account. Wilkinson noted that despite the fact that ‘swami’ designs exhibited fine and intricately detailed ornamentation of Hindu deities and mythological figures, the style was a huge success in Europe and Great Britain. The most frequently depicted deities in this genre are Vishnu and Brahma riding their vahanas, or associated animals.

Bangalore Silver 'Swami-ware' Three Piece Tea-set by Krishniah Chetty c. 1900.

Bangalore Silver ‘Swami-ware’ Three Piece Tea-set by Krishniah Chetty
c. 1900.

After the Madras region, the discussion turned to Cutch silver, known for its attractive patterns of scrolling foliage intertwined with animals, birds and hunting scenes. The Cutch style was the most venerated Indian silverware in the late 19th century. Wilkinson particularly noted the resemblances to 17th century Portuguese pottery decorations, and distinctive similarities in the depiction of animal and bird figures with Persian decoration.

Next, Wilkinson focused on Kashmiri silver, highlighting the shawl pattern in particular. Taking inspiration from the prevalent Kashmiri weaving industry, this pattern illustrates vines of blossoms and leaves amid and between flowing scrolls; these scrolls sometimes lack detailing as to accentuate the distinction between the floral and the scroll aspects of the pattern.

Kashmir Parcel Gilt Set of Four Finger Bowls and Plates in 'Shawl' Pattern c. 1900.

Kashmir Parcel Gilt Set of Four Finger Bowls and Plates in ‘Shawl’ Pattern c. 1900.

Wilkinson then moved on to silverware produced in Lucknow. Designs from this region are most commonly recognized for their use of two patterns, the ‘jungle’ and the ‘hunting’ pattern. These patterns feature, although not to scale, forests of palm trees containing both animal and male figures, and bold male figures on elephant back pursuing wild animals or competing in sporting activities.

Lucknow Silver Swing-handle Basket in 'Hunting' Pattern c. 1890.

Lucknow Silver Swing-handle Basket in ‘Hunting’ Pattern c. 1890.

The eclectic diversity of the silversmithing in Bombay, as a result of immigrant artisans from many regions of India who brought with them a wide range of design and decorative influences, was also discussed. Wilkinson noted, when discussing specific pieces, the use of domestic picture design by Bombay artisans, as a conscious move away from Cutch style foliage designs.

To conclude his informative talk, Wynyard Wilkinson drew the audience’s attention to two unique oversize examples of Indian colonial silverware on display. First, a large hand-rinsing fountain produced in Cutch in 1910, and, second, a voluminous two-handled vase crafted in Madras in 1890.

The exhibition will be on view till May 31, 2013, from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm Monday to Friday, and Saturday by appointment at Saffronart, London.

The catalogue may also be viewed online.

Art Deco and India’s Royal Families

Nishad Avari of Saffronart on the status of Art Deco in India’s royal collections 

Mumbai: In the nineteenth century, first under the East India Company and then as part of the British Empire when Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India, not only did the Indian princes find themselves “…increasingly having to accommodate and entertain Europeans on equal terms,” but they also started developing a taste for the Western luxury goods and standards of living they now had a chance to experience.

By the 1920s, “Within one generation of western education the lifestyle of India’s princes were transformed and they began to wear western clothes, engage in western games and eat western food…those princes who could afford it abandoned their traditional residences for new, substantial palaces principally designed by western architects…[and] were built to accommodate western-style living, with its specific rooms for dining, sleeping, socializing, sport and recreation. The western-style elevated furniture and domestic articles needed to outfit these new vast palaces were readily supplied by British firms such as Maple & Co. and Waring & Gillow, both of which had showrooms in India… For Western firms making luxury goods, be it F & C Osler, Baccarat, Cartier, Boucheron, Louis Vuitton, Holland & Holland or Rolls Royce, Indian princes proved to be substantial clients and at certain times, such as during the Great Depression, were the mainstay of business” (Amin Jaffar, Made for Maharajas, Lustre Press/Roli Books, Mumbai, 2007, p. 15. 18).

Many of the items created by these firms for Indian royals between the 1920s and 1940s were crafted in the Art Deco style that had taken Europe by storm at the time. As a result, members of India’s royal families came to be regarded as some of the greatest patrons of Art Deco architecture, interiors, jewelry and accessories were.

From entire palaces constructed in the style, most notably in Morvi, Jodhpur and Indore, to highly customised jewelry, furniture and accessories purchased from European firms like Cartier, Boucheron and Louis Vuitton, India’s maharajas were captivated by the glamour, elegance and modernity that Art Deco represented as these were all principles central to their lifestyles.

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To read more about the history of the Art Deco movement, click here.

Learn more about our Art Deco Auction auction.

Indian Period Silver

Sneha Sikand of Saffronart offers a brief history of Period Silver in India

New Delhi: Crafting silver in India dates back several centuries. But what is seen as the golden era of silverware is the colonial period. The time of British occupation in India which lasted from the mid nineteenth century to the early twentieth century was when silversmiths in India produced some of the most exquisite and luxurious silver tableware.

A Tea Kettle with Burner
House of Dighapatia, Bangladesh
20th century
Image credit:

From tea services, bowls and cutlery sets to card cases and picture frames, silver items came to be associated with prestige and nobility. Initially made by silversmiths as gifting items, they were soon viewed as basic necessities in any well established home.

Historically, silver has been produced in various parts of India and some of the manufacturing houses remain popular to date. The silversmiths or sonars would receive ingots and recycled silver to create items of use by remolding and then a patterner would draw a design over the object. These processes were repeated time and again to get the right finish.

The prominent establishments were divided by region. Kashmir, Madras, Bangalore, Kutch, Lucknow, Bombay and Calcutta became the centers for handcrafted silver – blending traditional designs and patterns with western forms. Madras silver came to be known as Swami Silver because of its frequent depiction of gods and religious festivities. One of the most prominent firms in the area was P. Orr and Sons, a Scottish firm which received several commissions for gifts presented to British crown.

A ‘Samovar’ or Hot Water Fountain
20th century
Image credit:

The silver from Kutch in Gujarat was known for having heavily embossed patterns that enveloped the entire surface of the object. Almost always using some kind of dense foliage pattern, Kutch silverware was considered the most popular in the late nineteenth century and appealed a great deal to westerners. World renowned silver craftsman Oomersee Mawjee’s designs were among the favourite of the colonial period.

The patterns in Madras and Kutch silverware could appear quite abstract and would often  have more than one standard pattern running within an object. The tea pot could be depicting a foliate patten while the handle would be in the shape of a serpent, or the spout in the form of an animal’s head.

While many would argue regarding the difference and range in the purity of silver from region to region, the labour and aesthetic value of period silver has always been given more importance.

Select Period Silver pieces are currently on view at Saffronart, Delhi till 5 October, 2012

View the collection here

Period and Contemporary Silverware Exhibition at Saffronart Delhi

Manjari Sihare shares details of the Contemporary & Period Silverware exhibition, currently on view at Saffronart’s gallery in Delhi 

New Delhi: This week, Saffronart is hosting an exhibition of contemporary and classic silverware in their Delhi gallery at the Oberoi Hotel. On view and sale are about thirty collectible pieces, from intricately engraved period vases and objets d’art, to minimalist one-of-a-kind contemporary pieces, hallmarked and certified.

Silver lies at the heart of several Indian traditions. The use of this precious metal extends back possibly 5700 years, with the earliest discovered silver ornaments dating to at least 3000 BCE in the Saraswati civilization of western India. The prevalence and use of silver has not waned with the passage of time. As per the Indian social order, silver is a symbol of prosperity and good fortune and finds its way into every auspicious practice and occasion. The tradition of gifting silver is thus deeply ingrained in our culture. The current exhibition highlights the important role silver has played in India as well as the ways in which talented designers in the country continue to interpret this heritage.

Through the week we will be featuring posts on this blog that provide basic information (sometimes detailed) about the history of silver object making in India from the British Raj onwards, contemporary trends in silver craft, information from the point of view of investment, and details about the handling and care of silver. Our aim is to provide new insights into the history of silverware, as well as present both period and contemporary silverware as highly desirable collectibles. The posts will be compiled from a variety of authoritative sources including our extensive library of books on antiques and collecting, other informational resources on the web and insights from our editorial and client servicing specialists.

The pieces are on view at Saffronart, Delhi, until October 5, 2012. Select pieces are also available to view on Saffronart’s website.

Dates: September 24 – October 5, 2012

Venue: Saffronart, The Oberoi Hotel, Dr. Zakir Hussain Marg, New Delhi 110003, India

Timings: Monday to Saturday 11:00 am to 7:00 pm, and Sunday 11:00 am to 4:00pm


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