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Bidri Hookah Base

India (Deccan, Bidar), circa 1850

Height: 17.2 cm
Diameter: 6.1 cm

An elegant bidri hookah base of elongated tapering pear-shape standing on a splayed foot, inlaid with silver against a lustrous black ground. The body is decorated with parallel horizontal bands of densely clustered leaves, flowers and fronds. The glittering silver bands are stacked in tiers of three to form friezes that contrast vividly with the wide bands of unadorned jet black bidri alloy.

At the bottom of the hookah are three bands with different designs: the first of compacted five-leaved branches spaced by bifurcated sprigs; the second, on the swell of the vessel’s belly, consisting of quatrefoil flowers on scrolling vines; and lowest down, just above the foot, is the third band with leafy fronds swept by the wind to the left. The splayed foot is decorated a circle of pendant buds. A plain band of matte black bidri separates these lower bands from three silver bands of similar design on the shoulder of vessel.

As the hookah tapers towards the top, a band of compacted pendant leaves forms a collar at the narrowest point. Above this, a projecting flange decorated with buds supports the widening neck decorated with two bands of leaves spaced by a strip of undecorated bidri in between.

The technique of bidriware is thought to have originated in the city of Bidar in the Deccan, which gave its name to this type of inlaid metalwork.(1) Bidri is cast from an alloy of which the predominant component is zinc together with small amounts of copper and tin, to which is added varying proportions of lead. The bidri vessels and other objects are then inlaid or overlaid with silver, brass and sometimes gold.(2) A mud paste containing sal ammoniac is applied which turns the alloy permanently a rich matte black in contrast to the glittering silver and other metals which are unaffected by the paste.(3)

For hookah bases of similar shape in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, see Susan Stronge, Bidri Ware: Inlaid Metalwork from India, 1985, p. 88, no. 84, pp. 90-91, no. 92. See also Jagdish Mittal, Bidri Ware and Damascene work in the Jagdish & Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, 2011, pp. 128-129, no. 39.

Provenance:

James Broun-Ramsay (1822-1860), 1st Marquess of Dalhousie and Governor-General of India from 1848-1856.

James Broun-Ramsay was the youngest surviving son of George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie and Christian née Broun of Colstoun, East Lothian. The four bidri pieces in this catalogue come from Colstoun, Broun-Ramsay’s country house, the seat of his mother’s family for a millennium. Though his achievements were many, his tenure as Governor-General of India remains controversial and harshly judged by both his contemporary critics as well as modern historians. His great administrative ability created the map of modern India as a unified state, linked by prodigious developments in infrastructure including the laying of railways, roads, canals and telegraph lines. However, his aggressive annexation of the Punjab and, unnecessarily, of Burma, led to the destruction of the East India Company’s profits, to be replaced by a heavy loss-making administration. Ruthless application of unpopular policies like the doctrine of lapse, whereby an Indian ruler without an heir had his territories annexed by the British, led to the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

References:

1. John Guy and Deborah Swallow, Arts of India: 1500-1900, 1990, pp.118 and 199; Stuart Cary Welch, India: Art and Culture 1300-1900, 1985, p. 322.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

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