The History of Deccan Metalware
“Metal has always been to India, what ceramics has been to China,” says Mark Zebrowski, author of the 1997 book “Silver, Gold and Bronze from Mughal India”, and one of the leading global experts for Deccan metalwork. This exquisite range of Deccan metalware is a rare collection of masterpieces from a significant period in history. Deccan metalware is characterized by a unique blend of South Indian artistic traditions, combined with Persian and Mughal influences.
The Deccan Plateau is a large plateau in western and southern India, covering significant parts of Telangana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The Deccan produced some of the major dynasties in Indian history, of which one was the Deccan Sultanate - five late-medieval Indian kingdoms on the Deccan Plateau between the Krishna River and the Vindhya Range, that were ruled by Muslim dynasties: namely Ahmadnagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur, and Golconda.
In the 12th century, Turkish emirs from Central Asia and Afghanistan gained control of the land from Gujarat across to Bengal and then later the Deccan or southern lands. And so was born the Indo-Islamic style, looking to the west with Persian influences, yet intertwining local practices and innovation. “India interpreted, but seldom imitated; and sometimes her interpretations not only surpassed, but altered, her models,” according to Zebrowski. Although the Sultanate period was the beginning of this style, it was not until the 14th century that a full-blown Indo-Islamic vision appeared and set the tone for most later Indo-Islamic art.
The second important development of this style was the Mughal invasion. By 1700, the Mughal empire included all of the Deccan, and patronage of the arts grew hugely. Metalwork always reigned supreme among the decorative arts at court, and combined well with the long Indian history of working in brass, bronze, and copper, dating back to first century BC.
This combination, Zebrowski says, produced “a confrontation of two very different visions - namely the ethereal lightness of the Muslim arabesque with the perennial sculptural qualities of the Indian approach” and this is what it gives it “its rare power”. As the craftsmen working for both Hindus and Muslims were probably the same, a common idiom was formed with an emphasis on flowers for Muslims and figures for Hindus. “Such mingling of Hindu and Muslim sensibilities gave Mughal (sic Deccan) art rare formal strengths and the ability to endure,” argues Zebrowski.
Deccan metalware specifically, while showcasing the same combination as the Mughal pieces did – namely the influence of the abstraction of the Middle East with the plasticity of India - had its own, much more luxurious, and opulent style. “Deccani objects bristle with energy. We are reminded of the opulent decorative sense of Deccani painters, who designed the figures on the best of these metal pieces, and ultimately of the luxuriance of Hindu South Indian ornament, fundamentally different from that of the north,” says Mark Zebrowski.
A Multitude of Uses
The collection boasts of of pieces spanning various uses - from utilitarian objects such as water vessels, oil containers and pandan boxes to religious figures such as Deepalakshmis and Shiva Lingas, culturally relevant finds such as ceremonial spoons and writing boxes to animal figures such as rams and peacocks. What remains consistent across the collection is exceptional detailing and fine craftsmanship.
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