Indian Silver is the story of a mental that has the glitter and fitness of gold, and in India, its greater affordability may well give it an edge over gold. Here, for the first time under the covers of one book, all aspects and uses of silver in India are brought together, from the history and techniques of making silver items to the prized objects themselves, from jewellery to coins to modern utility items. In the process, the book brings out India’s continuing fascination with silver objects, as reflected in palaces, museums, private collections, and even in ordinary Indian homes.
S.K. Pathak is in-charge of the Pre-Columbian and Western Art Department of the National Museum, New Delhi. He has a Master’s degree in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and a diploma in Museology from Bharat Kala Bhawan, BHU. Author of various research articles, Pathak has curated many exhibitions organized by the Government of India. This is his first book.
One of the earliest metals to have been used by man, not only in India but also in other parts of the world, silver the brilliant white shining metal – is second only to gold in preciousness. It has carved a special niche for itself due to its malleability and its multiple uses. In India, it perhaps surpasses gold in popularity because of its greater affordability. In fact, most goldsmiths in India craft a variety of silver ornaments, silverware, religious and decorative figures and utility objects. That India has always had a fascination for items such as jewellery, urns and figures of deities in silver is manifest in places, museums, private collections and even in ordinary Indian homes. In the light of studies by scholars on silver jewellery, coins and religious and utility objects, an attempt will be made in this monograph to present an overview on Indian silver.
Silver jewellery dates back to the Harappan period (c. 2500-1800 BC), as evidenced by the excavation of silver objects from the ancient sites of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. Recently, afew damaged silver churis (bangles) and some karas (thick wire bangles) were found in Maandi (Meerut, Uttar Pradesh), a Harrapan site (these are now on display in the National Museum, New Delhi). By the sixth century BC, silver coins known as punch-mark coins were introduced, inaugurating the first coinage in Indian history. Gradually, silver also began to be used to make utility items, as has been corroborated in the findings from excavations at Taxila (early first century of the Christian era), indicating the overall prosperity of the people as well as the popularity of silver as a metal.
Indian coinage is an important source of Indian history. Through the earliest Indian punch-mark coins, belonging to the sixth century BC, archaeologists and historians have unraveled many hitherto unknown facts of Indian history. For example, the silver coins used during the Satavahana dynasty – the round shape of the coins, the engraved portraits of kings and queens, their achievements and important events during their rule – constitute a valuable pictorial record of the time. The Satavahanas ruled in the western Deccan in the first century BC but part of their empires was conquered by Nahapana, a powerful Kshatrapa ruler and founder of the Kshatrapa monetary system. He was the first to mint portrait-type silver coins, usually with a thunderbolt and arrow engraved on the reverse.
Each region of India has evolved its own designs and techniques in creating silverware, depending on local traditions, aesthetics and religious beliefs as well as environmental conditions. The state of Kashmir excels in the production of silver plates. These are made in either a shallow repousse with pierced designs or as flat surfaces with engraved lines. Kashmiri craftsmen make all kinds of functional articles such as tea-sets, trays and jugs.
Common designs used are Kalka, (paisley motifs), the arabesque, the rosette, and chinar leaf shapes. Sometimes, silver objects are covered with gold in a technique called the Ganga-Jamuna style.
In Punjab, most silver artifacts are made by Kashmiri workmen who settled there in the nineteenth century, while in Lucknow, from where the erstwhile Nawabs of Awadh once ruled, designs of silver items are similar to Kashmiri workmanship. The silver articles of Lucknow are ornate, with shallow repousse work depicting hunting scenes or showcasing tree and floral motifs.
The royal families of Rajasthan patronized the manufactures of silver plates. Known for the fine quality of their creations, Rajasthani artists also crafted exquisite figures of men, women, elephants and camels and fashioned wine flasks, huqqas (smoking pipes) betal-nut boxes, and itradaan (scent flagons). Most of these objects can be seen in museums of India, especially the National Museum of New Delhi, which has an impressive collection of such silver artifacts. Silver images of Gods and Goddess, such as Durga, Kakshmi, Ganesha, Krishna and Saraswati, are popular in India and are kept in tiny shrines in homes for worship. A notable example is a small temple covered with repousse work that belonged to Gujarati royalty (National Museum).
Cuttack (Orissa), in the eastern part of India, has also produced rich work in silver. Its filigree creations are renowned not only in India, but also all over the world. Artists of this region have produced a large number of decorative items in delicate filigree work, but some artists, however later moved south to Karimnagar (Andhra Pradesh) and Tiruchipalli (Tamil Nadu), continuing their work there, Filigree work is also created by artists in Central India, Rajasthan and Utter Pradesh.
In Kerala in South India, ornamental and utility articles were made from small silver coins (chakrama) threaded together with a fine silver wire or soldered together living small spaces between two pieces to produce the effect of lattice work.
Poona (now Pune, in Maharashtra) and Kutch (Gugarat) were two main centers in western India where silver ornaments and silverware for everybody use were made in a very deep, bold from of repousse. These creations were often moulded into graceful human shapes or figurines of deities.
With the growing market for modern designs and articles, silver craftsmen need technical knowledge about the amount of alloy required to produce a certain hardness in the metal. In India, large firms, such as the well-known Cooke &amp;amp;amp; Kelvey, have experimented with the quality of alloys and have set their own seal on articles to guarantee the quantity and quality of silver in each piece. Today, Indian craftsmen are second to none in the world in terms of designer and quality silverware, not even to their competitors in European and Arabic countries.
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