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: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9236

“You’re Welcome,” says the Baluster Silver Mug, spawn of Oomersi Mawji (Lot 102)
Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9236

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: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9235

“Here’s your proof,” says the Raised Silver Centrepiece, Oomersi Mawji & Co., Bhuj (Lot 101)
Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/customauctions/PreWork.aspx?l=9235

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: http://www.saffronart.com/common/zoomit.html?url=http://mediacloud.saffronart.com/auctions/2013/jwloct/jewelry_13oct_03798_hires.jpg

“We kid you not,” says the Rare Trophy Cup of Oomersi Mawji & Co., Bhuj (Lot 104)
Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/common/zoomit.html?url=http://mediacloud.saffronart.com/auctions/2013/jwloct/jewelry_13oct_03798_hires.jpg

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.

A Walk Through of Exhibitions of Indian Silverware Worldwide from the 1850s to the Present

Elisabetta Marabotto of Saffronart on some of the main exhibitions of Indian silverware that have taken place around the world

Sugar Bowl and cover, Oomersi Mawji, Bhuj, ca. 1880

Tea Set, Oomersi Mawji, Bhuj, ca. 1880; Image credit: Victoria & Albert Museum, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O140168/sugar-bowl-and-mawji-oomersi/

In conjunction with the Silver exhibit at Saffronart Delhi, the Saffronart blog is publishing articles on the history of silver and its international popularity. Similar pieces can be viewed on our website.

London: Indian silverware is renowned worldwide for its beauty, design and quality. The first time Indian silverware and other artifacts from the subcontinent were exhibited in Europe was in 1851, at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, in the “Indian court” space. The great success of this exhibition and the popularity of Indian silver led Liberty and Co. of Regent Street and Proctor and Co. of Oxford Street to create their own workshops in India. The response to the exhibition also prompted the construction of a space where these objects could be displayed permanently. Thus, the Museum of Manufactures was built in Marlborough House, London, especially designed to educate people in art and design. Later it became known as the South Kensington Museum, and today, is named the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Some years later, in 1883, the Calcutta International Exhibition was held in the Indian Museum. It was the first exhibition of this genre, dedicated to arts and crafts from India. The show was opened by H.E. Lord Ripon, the Viceroy of India, in the presence of Queen Victoria and the Duke and Duchess of Connaught. More information about this exhibition can be found here.

In 1903, on the occasion of the Grand Durbar celebrating the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India, the assembly waiting for the royals to arrive in Delhi organized an incredible exhibition of jewelry and every Indian prince present at the ceremony was adorned with magnificent gems.

Claret jug made by Oomersee Mawjee, Kutch, c. 1890

Claret jug made by Oomersee Mawjee, Kutch, c. 1890; Image Credit: http://www.themagazine
antiques.com/articles/indian-silve
r-for-the-raj/

Much more recently, in July 2007, Wynard Wilkinson, a British specialist in antique Indian silverware, organized an exhibition displaying more than 400 items. These were made during the three ruling regimes in India (Mughal, neoclassical Georgian and British Raj) and reflected the taste of their patrons.

According to Wilkinson “India’s long and tumultuous history is arguably nowhere better reflected than in silver objects produced to the order of those who once ruled the vast subcontinent. My July exhibition began with items designed to appeal to the sybaritic tastes of the Mughal emperors who controlled India from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. The next group of objects reflected the neoclassical ‘Georgian’ restraint that was favored by the first generations of European merchants and soldiers who arrived under the auspices of the East India Company. The last group consisted of objects produced during the British Raj, the style of which is truly indigenous.”

Wilkinson in this exhibition mainly focused on functional objects and tableware. Look here for more information.

The following year, Vidya Dehejia curated an exhibition at Columbia University’s Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery titled “Delight in Design, Indian Silver from the Raj”, focusing only on Indian silverware produced during the Raj period (1858-1947).

Detail of Water jug featuring the Descent of the Ganges, Calcutta, ca 1885

Detail of Water jug featuring the Descent of the Ganges, Calcutta, ca 1885; Image Credit: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/wallach/exhibitions/
Delight-in-Design/credits.html

Raj silverware is characterized by the adoption of European shapes and purposes, but retains innate Indian patterns and decorations. In fact, Indian silversmiths had to satisfy the increasing demand for silver objects from European customers. Some of the most common objects produced during the period were tea sets, goblets, beer mugs, claret jugs and so on. Interestingly, every part of the country was characterized by a different decorative style that mirrored local tastes and traditions. For example, silverware from Kutch would often be quite heavily decorated. Some of the recurrent designs were snake-shaped handles and elephant trunk-shaped spouts. On the other hand figures of Gods and Swamis are often present as decorative elements in silver objects from Madras. This is why the silver from this region is often referred to as Swami.  Lastly Calcutta’s silverware usually bears rural scenes decorations.

The most refined works of silver were made during the Raj Period, and some of the most popular firms were P. Orr and Sons of Madras and Oomersee Mawjee of Kutch. More information about this exhibition and the different local styles of the Raj period can be found here.

Finally, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is currently hosting (until February 2013) the exhibition, ‘Indian Silver for the Raj’. This show presents the VMFA’s latest Indian silver acquisitions. The exhibition is divided in two parts.

Five Piece Tea Service, P. Orr & Sons, Madras, 1876

Five Piece Tea Service, P. Orr & Sons, Madras, 1876, Image Credits: http://www.vmfa.state.va.us/indian-silver/

The first part focuses on the fusion of Indian and British culture through silver making. Thus, as a material example of this blending, calling card-cases, rosewater sprinklers and tea sets are exhibited. The second part of the exhibition focuses on the different regional styles of Raj silver.

This showcase aims to highlight the similarities yet originality within the Raj period silver, perhaps the most successful era of silver making.

Tours of the exhibition will be organized twice in October. More information on the exhibition and associated events

Apart from temporary exhibition, pieces of Indian silver can also be appreciated in the permanent collections of several museums around the globe. Some of the best works can be viewed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Musee Guimet in Paris, and at Harvard University’s Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Boston. If you happen to be in any of these locations I would highly recommend a visit to these institutions to view and enjoy these extraordinary objects.

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: www.saffronart.com

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: www.saffronart.com

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

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