Monday, December 7, 2009

Ivory inlay work

One more discovery, or, rather, a confirmation of what I had read about in surprise some years ago: Vizagapatam's ivory inlaid handicrafts were in high demand in the mid-to-late 1700s. I found an article on this topic by one Amin Jaffer in the Feb 2001 issue of Magazine Antiques.

The impression I get of these crafts is that they were exquisite and in very high demand among the European population in Vizagapatam as well as royalty everywhere in India. Strange that we don't find a single piece in Vizag. (I must check out the museum once I get there.)

The pieces, however, did find their way all across Europe. Quite a few of them -- a porcupine quill sewing basket, dressing tables, caskets and chess sets -- are on auction. A very ornate writing and dressing table is apparently part of a collection that a once-chic German couple, Edmond and Lily Safra, has set up for sale. This one is estimated to go for around $50,000 to $70,000.

Here's a picture from the catalogue:


But from Amin's article I get the impression that the larger pieces of furniture were not quite the thing. Their proportions were a bit off sometimes and dressing table mirrors were not always the right size, as workmen made do with whatever glass was available. It was the smaller betel nut and other portable boxes that were more exquisite and also more in demand. They were mostly made of sandalwood and inlaid with ivory with lac providing the black background or outline.

Other impressions
The article also mentions that Vizag's chintzes were highly valued. Let me get you the quote: "Major John Coreille (b.c. 1727) wrote in the 1750s that Vizagapatam's 'chintz is esteemed the best in India for the brightness of its colours.'"

I also get the impression that Vizag was quite the cosmopolitan sea port, as it was the only natural harbour between Calcutta and Madras. Vessels from Canton in China stopped by and Amin says it's not impossible that Chinese workers lent Indian workers a hand, as the furniture designs do reflect a Chinese influence. However, all local craft was moulded to the European taste, as the English settlers were the main buyers.