Indian Silver for the British Raj

Vidya Dehejia in Mumbai on March 5, 2009. (Asia Society India Centre)

MUMBAI, March 5, 2009 – Lifestyle needs of the British colonialists dictated the kind of silver that was produced by Indian artisans duringthe British Raj. But the decorations on that silver reflected local traditions, depending on where in the British Raj the silver was produced, according to a Columbia University scholar speaking here at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum.

In a lecture hosted by Asia Society India Centre and the Museum, Vidya Dehejia, Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, discussed the different kinds of decoration that started appearing on Indian silverware around 1860, beginning with work from the Madras Residency. According to Professor Dehejia, the Madras innovations were successful enough that they caught on in the other parts of India that were producing silver products.

Particularly influential was the Swami (Indian religious art) school of design from the Madras Residency, which resulted in the Kutchregion's introducing its own Kutch-style Swami works, along with many pieces that focused on detailed studies of animals. Silver artisans in Bombay, meanwhile, also tried their hand at making Swami-style pieces, with the Bombay school's chief contribution being silver pieces that depicted urban life. The Burma Presidency, for its part, produced silver works featuring scenes from the Ramayana and from the lives of Burmese rulers before the advent of the British Raj.

With the help of visual aids to illustrate her point, Professor Dehejia conclusively demonstrated that while the type of products that were made was dictated by their end users (the British), the creative expression evident in those items consistently belonged to the Indian artisans who created them.

Reported by Angeline Thangaperakasam, Asia Society India Centre

Audio Excerpt: Vidya Dehejia discusses the introduction of indigenous decorations on works of silver (3 min., 7 sec.)

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