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)
Image Credit:

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)
Image Credit:

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.

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,

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

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:

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:

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.

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