Bell-shaped Huqqa Base with Poppy design

Bidri alloy inlaid with silver
Bidar, Deccan, India
Circa 1750-1780
Height: 16.5 cm Diameter: 16 cm

A simple yet elegant bell-shaped bidri huqqa base with a flared mouth and an everted rim at the base. The main field of the huqqa is embellished with seven delicate silver poppy plants. Each of these has a large poppy that curves gently to the right as three smaller poppies stand curled softly below it. There are multiple borders above and below this main field, which is framed by scrolling foliage in hatched borders. The gently flaring trumpet mouth of the huqqa is decorated with smaller poppies that are identical to the ones observed in the central field. Underneath this is a projecting flange adorned with the same scrolling arabesque that frames the main field. Around the neck of the huqqa base is a ring of chevrons.

The poppy plants are well-spaced and executed in tehnishan work, whereby a steel kalam (stylus) is used to engrave the outlines of the pattern and the area within it is evenly excavated. V-shaped grooves which are then made along the outline of this design, are used to secure the exactly shaped pieces of metal sheet (silver, in this case) that are inlaid into the chiselled out area. Vessels of this kind would have caught all the light that fell on them and shone bright in splendour, adding to their beauty, while also reaffirming their role as a marker of status. By the 18th century inlays of brass become rarer, as it is likely that the craftsmen of Bidar discovered that unlike silver, brass expands at an appreciably different rate from the bidri body of the vessel.

It was from about 1740 that the popular ‘Mughal poppy flower’ motif came to be executed on bidri ware from Bidar. The poppies which were rendered in a lyrical, naturalistic way between 1740 and 1800, became more stylised and lifeless thereafter. In spite of the fact that this poppy motif was popular in Mughal art, the version of it seen in bidri is distinctly Deccani in its placement, shape and execution. This Deccani variant, popularly known as the ‘Hyderabad poppy’ was to become the favourite floral motif of Deccani decorative arts in the 18th century. It can also be seen in the foreground gardens of many Hyderabadi paintings.

Bidri ware forms an important part of the tradition of Indian Islamic metalwork. It gets its name from the town of Bidar, in the Deccan where it is believed to have originated. It is a technique of metalwork in which silver, brass and gold are inlaid or overlaid in motifs to adorn objects made of an alloy primarily of zinc and copper. Among the surviving Bidri ware from all centres of production, huqqa bases form the largest percentage.

The earliest huqqa bases were globular. In the decade between 1730-40 a change was seen in the shape of the bases from spherical to bell-shaped, which stayed in fashion till the end of the 18th century. The first instance of a bell-shaped huqqa can be seen in a painting in 1740 where the emperor is shown smoking it. However, its sides are almost vertical – something that changes in the years post 1800 when the ‘skirting’ of the bell-shaped huqqas starts becoming more pronounced with every subsequent decade. This innovative design which was also more elegant in its form, gave greater stability to the bases such that they could be placed on the ground, as opposed to earlier times when globular huqqa bases were made to rest on metal rings for stability.

Provenance: Motamed collection, Germany, 1970s-2013.

References:

Haidar, Navina Najat and Sardar, Marika. Sultans of Deccan India 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015.

Zebrowski, Mark. Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India. London: Alexandria Press, in association with Laurence King, 1997.

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