Monday, May 21, 2018 | Last Update : 04:53 AM IST
The modern-day version of this is a tacky gold polish which disappears after a couple of vigourous scrubbings!
Several years ago I remember straying into a well known silver smith’s showroom and asking the weight of a silver tea service. “We do not sell by weight,” came the haughty reply from the salesperson. Suitably chasticised I slunk away! Silver has indeed come a long way from the mandatory tea and coffee service and “lemon set” given away at weddings. It is a style statement that sets the classes apart from the plebeians. And hardly surprising considering that India has had a history of silver being used for fashioning eating utensils and other items of daily use in the pliable and classy metal.
Now with big design houses having focused attention on the metal, it is undergoing resurgence from being merely a poor man’s “gold.” One has heard granny’s tales about how only the poor wore jewellery made of silver and the rich only used silver for eating and serving food out of them. For long before stainless steel arrived on the scene, it was either silver or brass, or iron with bronze and copper thrown in for good measure for making things of everyday use.
This is not to say that silver ever went out of fashion. Traditionally, silver had the most favoured place with the metal dominating the puja ghar – the icons to begin with, had to be fashioned out of a ‘pure’ metal and silver was the obvious choice. That it was a soft metal, made it easier to detail the figurines. Here the casting method was used, so that the figurines were completely solid. The embellishments that followed could be in gold or inset with semi precious and precious stones. In some regions Ganga-Jamuni or icons made of silver and gold also became popular. The modern-day version of this is a tacky gold polish which disappears after a couple of vigourous scrubbings!
The other utensils of ritual significance that emerged out of the silver smith’s workshop were: The puja thali, that invariably came to be decorated with flower creepers at the edges, diyas or lamps of a mind boggling variety of shapes and sizes. In the southern part of India, the silver and lamps of other metals like brass or even terra cotta echo the same design – a salute to the perfection of design achieved over centuries. Silver plants akin to the tulsi or basil plant worshiped over the country made for ritual worship when it was not physically possible to worship the real thing, ditto for the kalash or ritual pitcher, complete with a silver coconut and mango leaves perched atop it!
Gangajal caskets, flower baskets, incense stick holders, bells to invoke the gods’ attention, small bowls for mixing kesar or saffron to decorate the idols, fly whisk handles, a replica of Lord Mahavir’s feet all made up the ritual silver. The decorative element of this segment is either embossing wherein a silver plate is beaten into place to reflect a certain design or carving a certain design by cutting out pieces not required by the design. In some cases even filigree is used, which entails soldering silver wires in a fine mesh to give the desired results.
Out of the puja ghar, silver dominates dining spaces. Thalis, katoris, plates, bowls, spice cellars, tumblers, lotas, serving dishes, both serving and eating cutlery in a design array that touches the entire spectrum from the wonderfully traditional to the contemporary chic. Joining the ranks are candle stands, center pieces, napkin holders, tea light holders, coffee sets, tea services, strainers, cups and saucers, silver mugs for beer, wine tumblers, water jugs, trays of various shapes and sizes that define lifestyle. They perhaps form the fulcrum of the entire silver trade for reasons of sheer weight and the fact that these are needed in large quantities in sets.
Another important component of silver usage are articles of personal toiletries by both men and women. The most romantic of these would easily be the kajal or kohl boxes and bottles for surma in some regions. Paisley shaped, almond shaped, oval, round, with designs embossed on the body of the piece are popular all over the country. Some unusual ones are shaped into pendants that can be strung in a chain around the neck and have a utility value as well! Joining the ranks here are a couple of interesting pieces – the lowly toothpick and ear cleaner with tiny spoon-like scoop for extracting wax! These too are part of the neck entourage!
Traditionally these were unisex, but became feminine over the years. Other unisex articles include tongue cleaners with decorative rope designs are also popular in Orissa, Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, combs and the oil bottle covers – used extensively in the Eastern part of India. The combs vary from the severely simple to the elaborately ornate. From Madhya Pradesh come combs that have the option of being filled up with oil and when the hair is combed.
Sindoor boxes in an amazing variety of both shape, design and size to flatter the vainest of women are available all over. Silver applicators for bindis and sindoor too can be found in areas where the disgustingly ubiquitous stick-on bindis have not arrived! For the men are shaving sets, with a small bowl, brush handle, razor sans blades, and a comb. There are sets with hair brushes, combs, mirrors as well.
Silver pieces gracing the corporate honchos’ tables too make their style statement. Sleek cigarette cases, lighters, ash trays, card cases, desk calendars, pen and ink holders, boxes for scratch pads, paper weights polished to perfection are perhaps far more effective in saying it all, without saying a thing.
For the more shaukeen or tasteful are paandaans. Here too, the sizes and designs would make choosing a difficult task! The traditional paandaan is a large round, square or rectangular box with a lid on top that has a latch to hold it in place and a handle on top of the lid to facilitate carrying it around.
Now with fewer people keeping paandaans at home, the sizes too have undergone a change. Paandaans no bigger than a demi-sized book and even shaped like one are available! Providing them company are small boxes for supari etc that fit into an evening bag with ease! Paan serving dishes from Lucknow perhaps deserve special mention – shaped like a dome or an open umbrella, spikes with small chains are hung from the centre of the dome or the edges of the umbrella wherein the prepared paan is pierced on each spike.
When the paan is served, the person eating it is supposed to hold the paan and slide it from the spike. Served on matching silver plate and with a small silver bowl filled with rose petals floating on water to clean the tips of the fingers that tend to soil when the paan is being imbibed are stuff that define the Avadh romance. As do silver hookahs from Rajasthan. Usable and yet decorative enough for a King’s chamber, these hookahs come in varying sizes and heights. The designs can vary from the floral to representatives of the animal kingdom usually the lion or the elephant and pretty birds. Another important segment are decorative silver pieces. Dancing and instrument playing figurines, tabla drums, pretty shankhs or silver shells carved in a cut out format, photo and mirror frames, ships in full mast, filigree chariot with Lord Krishna reciting the Gita with Arjuna is a fairly popular number – often given out to politicians.
A fashion trend that is classical as it is eternal is silver furniture. From elephant howdahs of yore, are present-day chairs, sofas, chaise lounges, tables, jhoolas, beds, bedside lamps complete with electric fittings, screens, side tables and triangular corners, which are essentially made of good teak wood and then a thick silver sheet is wrapped around the wood and beaten in place to encase and delineate the carving. This technique is used for some silver figurines and interestingly enough, doors and doorways. Used in temples and palaces alike earlier, these can be found in some homes of the very rich as well. I personally find it too akin to delusions of grandeur, but just as well for at least the karigari will survive.
The writer is an art curator and artist and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org