During the days of the Raj, the first thing a newcomer was expected to do on arriving in Mumbai or British enclaves across India was to make what Vidya Dehejia refers to as “the ritual of the call”. They had calling cards and went from one bungalow to the other depositing them. “It was a British formality, and there were all sorts of rules and regulations,” she explains. “The person who was called upon was not supposed to be at home, so they put up what they called ‘not at home’ boxes. They could be sitting just around the corner, but a bearer would take the card on a salver and go in. Once the call was made, you qualified for invitations to tea, badminton or lunch.”
The ritual is only one part of what really concerns Dehejia, as audiences at her lecture, Whose Taste? Indian Silver for the Raj, found. The author of Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj describes how ornamental silverware, fashioned by Indian craftsmen for British teatimes, blends European and local design. “The British were interested in promoting (Indian) crafts,” says Dehejia, explaining that it gave rise to a style of silverware referred to as “Swami Silver”, in which tea sets, cutlery, wine and water ewers, snuff and perfume containers, jewellery, even calling card cases, were embellished with impressions of Hindu deities.
The amalgam didn’t go down well with many people. But when the Prince of Wales visited India in1875-76, a lot of the gifts given to him were Swami Silver. The Maharaja of Indore and the Gaekwad of Baroda presented Swami tea services, while the Maharaja of Cochin offered a complete Swami service: 12 fish forks and knives, dessert spoons and forks, teaspoons, and berry spoons.
Dehejia’s book describes workshop traditions employed by the silversmiths of the time. She points out regional designs: Kolkata card cases featuring rural life, chinar leaf and poppy patterns on Kashmiri creations, Hindu gods on those made in Chennai and hunting scenes on Lucknow cases. Mumbai’s contribution to the style comes in the form of train motifs, town houses, palm trees and fort walls on locally made tea sets.
Dehejia’s talk included images of the silverware that was displayed at the Delight in Design exhibition at Columbia University, New York, last year.
Vidya Dehejia will present a lecture, Whose Taste? Indian Silver for the Raj, at the India International Centre, New Delhi, on 18 March. For details, call 24619431.
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