This box was probably meant to hold pan, the digestif made of a betel leaf rolled with lime paste and spices. Its robust architectonic form, reminiscent of early Islamic architecture in India, is a perfect foil for the bold rhythms of the arabesque designs that dominate its surface.
The brass-yellow scrolling lattice that encloses the silver-petaled flowers covering the surface of this pan (betel nut) box distinguishes the object from numerous later bidri vessels decorated with individual flowering plants. The decoration relates to illumination found in Deccani books from the same time period, as well as to the patterning on objects such as a seventeenth-century vambrace (cat.123, Collection of Rina and Norman Indictor, New York) and an unidentified object (cat. 101, Ranros Universal, S.A., British Virgin Islands), dating to the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, and which is also decorated with arabesques. The mid-sixteenth-century inlay work at the Rangin Mahal (Colored Palace) displays a comparable use of a scrolling vine with flowers and split-leaf motifs. This type of decoration seems to indicate an earlier date for the box than other objects within the bidri group, and it helps to establish the genesis of the bidri tradition at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
2- As originally suggested by Zebrowski, Mark "Ornamental Pandans of the Mughal Age." Mārg 36, no. 2 (March), pp. 31–40. 1983b.
Decorated with silver flowers linked to a brass yellow scrolling lattice, this box with sloping sides belongs to a group of Indian octagonal boxes meant to hold pan, the digestif made of a rolled-up betel leaf filled with lime paste and spices. Since the Museum’s box has no interior compartments, it is surmised to have held the completed pan rather than the ingredients for making it.
The process for decorating this object, known as bidri, is believed to have been invented in the city of Bidar, in the Deccan region of India. In this technique, an object was made from an alloy having zinc and copper as its main components and inlaid with silver and/or brass. A special paste was then applied to the object to render the base material very dark, simultaneously enhancing the contrasting colors of the inlaid metals.
Scholars have long debated how and when this particular technique was developed—a question not to be resolved here—but the decorative forms on this box suggest that it may be one of the oldest surviving examples of bidri ware. The sloping walls and low-slung, domed top have been compared to Sultanate and early Bahmani architecture. The scrolling lattice decoration, Persianate in spirit, differs from the friezes of flowering plants on numerous other bidri pieces, which are understood as the adoption of the Mughal flower style in the Deccan as a result of mid-seventeenth-century contacts between the two regions. Another early bidri object, a footed bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is similar in decoration to this box, with flowers on scrolls within cartouches suggested by serrated leaves and bilobed half palmettes. These two examples may predate the earliest dated bidri object, a huqqa base inlaid with silver and brass now in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad, which combines the scrolling floral motif with the tall flowering plants so typical of Mughal portable arts.
Marika Sardar in [Ekhtiar, Soucek, Canby, and Haidar 2011]
1. Other octagonal pan boxes are illustrated in The Indian Heritage: Court Life and Arts under Mughal Rule. Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. [Catalogue by Robert Skelton.] London, 1982, p. 143, and Zebrowski 1997 (see Bibliography), pp. 265 and 269.
2. The commonly advanced arguments for this are based on the name of the technique and an eighteenth-century map of Bidar that shows these objects as one of the products of the province (illustrated in Skelton 1982 [see note 1 above], p. 49).
3. Susan La Niece and Graham Martin discovered the importance of copper in the alloy for achieving the matte black patina. See La Niece, Susan, and Graham Martin. “The Technical Examination of Bidri Ware.” Studies in Conservation 32, no. 3 (August 1987), pp. 97–101.
4. This dating was first suggested in Zebrowski, Mark. “Ornamental Pandans of the Mughal Age.” In Symbols and Manifestations of Indian Art, edited by Saryu Doshi, Bombay, 1984, p. 39.
5. See, for example, the bidri huqqa base (MMA no. 1984.221) also discussed and illustrated in this volume.
6. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, no. IS 10-1973, dated to the early seventeenth century, illustrated in Stronge, Susan. Bidri Ware: Inlaid Metalwork from India. Victoria and Albert Museum. London, 1985, p. 39.
7. It has an inscription of A.H. 1044 /1634 A.D. Published in Zebrowski 1997, p. 232, no. 384.
Private collection, England; [ John Lawrence Fine Arts Inc., London, until 1996; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Courtly Radiance: Metalwork from Islamic India," September 25, 2001–May 5, 2002, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20, 2015–July 26, 2015, no. 84.
Zebrowski, Mark. Gold, Silver and Bronze from Mughal India. London: Laurence King Publishers, 1997. p. 265, ill. figs. 448ab, 496.
Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 84, pp. 184-185, ill. pl. 84.