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Home Silver In History

Silver In History

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Text and Photos by P. Anuradha Reddy, Editor & Convener, INTACH Hyderabad Chapter

Silver - shining, shimmering, molten, malleable and overall beautiful is a subject of fascination for the viewer. By its very character it lends itself to be shaped by the hands of the craftsman into Objects of Desire. Silver is mostly produced as a by-product of Copper, Gold, Lead and Zinc refining.

Michael Backman, a writer on Asia, and a long-time collector of Asian silver art objects tells us that artificial political borders and geographic areas were not responsible but trade and migration routes were responsible for designs and craftsmanship. Motifs used in Kashmir can be traced through to the Indonesian archipelago for example. Michael’s wide knowledge about Asia - its history, many cultures, politics and trade - permit a more complete understanding of the socio-cultural and historical context of the history of silver.

The early kingdoms of Peninsular India, including the Satavahanas, Kakatiyas, the Vijayanagar Empire, Golconda and Asaf Jahi rulers have contributed greatly to trade, commerce and enterprise in the region.

Temples in the vast Kakatiya kingdom, afforded patronage to workers from all over India. The silver craftsmanship of Pembarti and Warangal was influenced by the 16th century Kakatiya culture and the leaf and flower motifs are to be seen even today.

Design from the Ramappa temple and the Dwaram (Gate) of Orugallu (Warangal) the Kakatiya capital, is used in several articles of decoration and utility.

The decline of the Kakatiya dynasty brought about a reversal in the fortunes of the artisans which were revived during the rule of the Nizams of Hyderabad as craftsmen converted to making household articles and decorative pieces with sheet metal.

Paandans (betel nut boxes), Ithardaans (perfume containers), Gulabpash (rosewater sprinklers) and other articles were made.
Golconda and Hyderabad, though not maritime kingdoms, themselves were the link between the Western and Eastern maritime ports of India.  Golconda and Hyderabad contributed greatly to the global markets, both East and West of India.
Golconda and Asaf Jahi rulers maintained business and social connections with the Portuguese at Goa and also the later Europeans Colonial powers. These actions ensured that both dynasties were the most influential in the Deccan.

New European cultures also influenced design and craftsmanship in the Deccan. The Colonial powers eagerly adapted their designs to mould the Indian craftsmanship into developing a new genre - Indian Colonial Silver. Thence started the two way sharing of silver culture both into India and outwards to the world. 

Some of the famous silver manufacturers are listed here for information: John Mair - Calcutta, Hippolitus Poignand - Calcutta, John Hunt & Co. 51 Theatre St. - Calcutta, Cropley & Co. Old Court House St. - Calcutta, William Augustus Woolaston (Wollaston) Lall Bazar - Calcutta, Pittar & Co.  9 Old Court House St. - Calcutta, Lattey Brothers & Co.10 Government Place - Calcutta, Charles, Nephew & Co. 9 Old Court House St. - Calcutta, Cooke & Kelvey (Robert Thomas Cooke & Charles Kelvey) Old Court House St. - Calcutta, James Cox Popham's Broadway, Esplanade - Madras, Gordon & Lovell North Gate St. - Madras, George Gordon & Co. 18 Popham's Broadway - Madras, George Gordon & Co. with Peter & Alexander Orr 18 Popham's Broadway - Madras succeeded by Phillips & Co Peter Nicholas Orr Mount Road - Madras, P. Orr & Sons Mount Road - Madras, Oomersee Mawjee & Sons - Bhuj, Kutch, Warner Brothers - Delhi.

Bidriware of the Deccan and Karimnagar Silver Filigree are legendary. Several important private collection and great museums of the world hold extensive objects of both.

It is with great pride that I note The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia has a wonderful Indian Toilet set belonging to the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia.

The Hermitage Museum informs that in Europe, in the 17th and 18th centuries the main way of investing capital was to acquire gold and silverware. Silver toilet mirrors in frames and matching toilet sets became the symbol of wealth for people from high society. It was considered essential to own special containers for cosmetics, perfume bottles, gloves boxes, pins and trinkets, with the mirror as highlight. Ladies and gentlemen were dressed before an admiring audience.

East Indian trade made it possible to acquire silver from the Orient. One toilet set with filigree silver framed mirror consisting of 19 objects are in the collection of the Hermitage Museum. Silver filigree has been produced in Karimnagar (Deccan India) for more than 250 years. The Indian Toilet set was completed in the middle of the 18th century. Silver filigree objects in India have always been considered luxury, the privilege of Rulers and Aristocracy. Filigree was made of pure silver, rarely of gold.

The mirror and candlesticks have European shapes and correspond to the Rococo style. The Rosewater sprinklers (Gulabpash) with tall necks are traced back to 14th century Persian art, but they became traditional for Indian art. Typical Indian objects are the flasks for perfume (Ithardaan) shaped like a bouquet of flowers in a vase on a stand. The central box with lobed edges rests on a tray. Such boxes were used in India for betel, a kind of chewing stuff. The silver tray is the only object in the set decorated with gilding. Several pairs of boxes of different forms are included in the set. However, in the design of the filigree lines a flower shaped as a multi-petalled rose can be seen on many items. A carnation can be seen at the ends of the curved details on the frame and feet. This design is typical of the metalwork of the Moghul period in India.

Some shapes of the objects show the Chinese influence on Indian filigree. The boxes formed as clouds resemble the heads of Chinese jui sceptres (meaning “what you wish”). Lotus could be used as a motif in many Oriental countries. Other shapes of the items are European. This points to the fact that the future owner could order differently shaped pieces from a craftsman in Asia. These shapes could have been made according to the style popular in Europe or jewellers could work following their own designs in local or Chinese taste. It is possible that such fine filigree technique started to develop in India in the 17th and 18th centuries under the influence of Chinese jewellery, which was brought by ships of East Indian companies to Europe via Indian ports. The Hermitage set is the largest 18th century silver filigree toilet set of Indian make in the world.

Silver has had traditional medicinal value in many cultures. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans recognized the medical applications of silver. Hippocrates, the ‘Father of Medicine’, wrote that, silver had beneficial healing properties and protected against disease. The ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians as others stored water, wine, and vinegar in silver bottles to prevent spoiling. Silver is also used in Ayurvedic and Homeopathic medicine.

“Born with a silver spoon in his mouth” is not a reference to wealth, but to health. In the early 18th century, babies who were fed with silver spoons were considered healthier than those fed with spoons made from other metals, and silver pacifiers found wide use in America because of their beneficial health effects.

Silver had and continues to be used in many ways. Varkh is a foil of very pure silver made by pounding it into sheets a few micrometres thick.  It is backed with paper for support which is peeled away before use. Varkh is used for garnishing sweets and other culinary decorative uses. It is said that India converts 13 tonnes of pure silver into edible silver foil each year.
Silver is also used in ceremonial and religious practices. It forms part of architectural elements as also in handicrafts, paintings, furniture, vigrahas (statues) and vahanas (chariots), coinage, cosmetics and antiques. Silver zari (thread) forms part of India’s textile heritage. Silverware such as cutlery, table flatware, bowls, candlesticks, armour, weapons and other objects were manufactured for Indian and foreign markets. Some musical instruments are also made from sterling silver, such as the flute etc.

Silver jewellery was used by tribal and other cultures and forms part of modern fashion culture. In the Deccan, the Banjara tribes wore much silver until recent times when their attire changed to more modern dresses, the high price of silver, making it unaffordable.

Hyderabad and Secunderabad have many traditional areas where both silversmiths and dealers carry out their businesses. Silversmiths migrated to Hyderabad from several areas including Pembarti, Pachees Bazar - Siddipet and other areas in the Deccan. Sonar Galli in the Dabirpura area of the Old City of Hyderabad was the centre to where silver workers migrated. The families have all dispersed since to other areas. Gulzaar Hauz - Charminar is famous for its jaali work and antique design pandaans and other items.

General Bazar - Secunderabad has a very old traditional silver market famous for manufacture and sale of silver items of domestic use. Among the many shops existing here are Sherpally Jewelers established in 1885 by S. Buchinaramulu, continued by his son S. Narayana and still in business today is his son S. Srinivas. Aru Narthulu Shankeraih was established in 1902 by Balaiah, continued in 1940 by Shankeraih and in 1990 it is continued by Ramesh.  Vonmala Venkaih established his business in 1925 and in 1952 the business was inherited by his son Vonmala Jagadishwariah. The family migrated from Yellareddypet (near Siddipet - Medak district).

Arkepally, Chandur village in Nalgonda district manufactures articles for use in temple ceremonial rituals such as vigrahas (deities), pooja articles, etc. Silver articles of general use are manufactured at Warangal, Mahbubnagar, etc. Rangashaipeta, Warangal district was also a centre for silver craftsmanship. We have a very ancient tradition of silver manufacture in the erstwhile Hyderabad State.

Month: July 2010

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