The definition of “Indian silver” usually refers to the silverware produced in India during the Colonial period. The first foothold of the British East India Company in India dates back to 1615. From the 17th Century onwards, rare and stunning silver pieces were made both in the Portuguese and British colonies but the sudden growth in demand for silver produced in India mainly dates to the second half of the 19th Century and mostly concerns British colonies.
This period became very lucrative for local and British silversmiths. They set up workshops and shops in the major cities of the colony and some of them remained in business long after India achieved its independence from the British Raj in 1947. The greatest peculiarities of Indian silver are quality and variety: each region had its own distinctive style, themes and forms. The technique used by Indian silversmiths is mainly the répoussé, consisting in finely chasing the chosen pattern from the underneath, creating extraordinarily decorative designs in relief emerging from a finely tooled ground. The silver objects produced during this period are usually inspired by the contemporary Victorian silverware, sometimes imitating the English designs or, more often, interpreted in the characteristic local style. The most common items are salvers, trays, jugs, ewers, cups, beakers, boxes, vases, tea caddies, goblets, scroll holders and, more than anything, tea ware and bowls.
Cutch(or Kutch) is probably the most recognisable and known style of Indian silver, imitated in the Victorian era by great English silversmiths such as Elkington & Co. Although Indian silver is generally unmarked, Cutch silver is distinguished by the typical finely chased scrolling foliage with flowers, often enhanced by animals and hunting scenes in relief. Cutch silver proudly features the greatest Indian silversmith of all time: Oomersi Mawji. Together with his son, he ran the most successful workshop in India and signed their pieces “O.M” or “O.M BHUJI”. His style features an unrivalled quality and a vivid imagination. He often embellished his pieces with animals, hunting scenes, figural handles in the form of snakes, elephants, tigers and lions. One of his most famous creations is an extraordinary tea service in the form of birds.
A handful of other silversmiths produced comparable-quality silver in the Cutch style during the second half of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, all of them working on the typical foliate design embellished with animals. Only a few of them signed their pieces with their initials (Manikrai, Mawji Raghavji, VK, etc).
The city of Madras is renowned for its Hindu tradition, and consequently its art and architecture are distinguished by deities and religious figures. The silverware produced in this region represents a perfect example of this tendency and became known as “Swami silver” because of its decorative design of Hindu deities (Swami is the Hindu word for idols).
In Swami silver the pieces are repoussé and chased with various deities represented in a wide range of positions. Each figure would be extremely detailed and finely engraved, often enclosed in circular cartouches or stylised temples, repeating in parades or surrounded by scrolling foliage. The greatest silversmith operating in Madras is without a doubt the renowned Scottish clocksmith (clock maker) P. Orr. He established his shop in 1851 and began working with local silversmiths, specialising in the production of Swami silver. He signed his pieces “P. Orr & Sons”. Numerous other workshops produced high-quality Swami silver during the second half of the 19th Century but the most of them weren’t hallmarking their pieces at all.
Calcutta silver is also distinguished by a peculiar design. The silverware produced in this city represents scenes of Indian everyday life, populated by human figures working and farming, together with animals, all of them surrounded by trees, hills, buildings and cities. This style is usually smoother and somehow less crisp and detailed than others Indian designs. Calm bucolic scenes are preferred to the adventurous and sometimes violent scenes often used in Cutch or Lucknow silver.
The most famous firm operating in this style was Dass & Dutt who worked in the late 19th Century in Bhonivapore, a suburb of Calcutta.
The silverware produced in Kashmir is easily recognisable and distinctive when compared to other Indian styles. The local silversmiths, mostly of Muslim culture, adopted a peculiar arabesque decoration composing of stylised foliage, often used on tea services and other silver objects such as rose water sprinkles.
The very characteristic pattern is also referred to as the “paisley” design.
Lucknow, Northern India. In the 10th century the population of the city of Lucknow was mostly Muslim so the main culture and decoration in the area was Islamic. In the latter part of the 19th Century Lucknow silversmiths adopted patterns from other regions, imitating the Cutch, Madras, Calcutta, Kashmir styles and sometimes mixing them together. For this reason, Lucknow silver is not always easy to recognise. Nevertheless it is possible to pinpoint a few recurring patterns typical of Lucknow silver: the hunting pattern, chased with animals and hunters riding elephants and horses and hunting tigers, the scrolling foliage in the Cutch style and the jungle pattern, with groves of palms and various animals.
Lucknow silversmiths rarely sign their silver pieces in the Western way, with names or initials, but each workshop bears an unique figural hallmark - often a stylised flower or animal - engraved on the underside.