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Simon Ray

India (Lucknow)
Late 18th century
Height: 11 cm Diameter: 10.2 cm

A silver bell-shaped hookah base, finely enamelled in blue, green and mauve with engraved and black enamelled details and outlines that gleam against polished silver ground. The shape and design are characteristic of Lucknow metalwork from the late eighteenth century and may be compared with several published examples of silver and silver-gilt bell-shaped hookah bases of the same period.

Decorating the body of the hookah is a frieze of six oval cartouches, each containing a stylised iris flower flanked by smaller irises just beginning to bloom. The flowers rise from a symmetrical spray of variegated green leaves. At the junctures where the cartouches meet are four-petalled mauve flowers flanked by bifurcated green leaves that enclose green buds. Inscribed within one of the oval cartouches is the name of the owner, possibly a Lucknow nobleman:

Sayyad Mehdi Nawab Sahib

The spandrels between the oval cartouches are decorated with birds. In the spandrels above the cartouches, the birds fly from right to left. In the spandrels below, the designs rotate anticlockwise: four birds stand facing right while two birds flutter as they begin their dramatic ascent towards the sky.

Framing the main frieze are bands of trefoil flowers, or perhaps clusters of three bell-shaped flowers like bluebells, that alternately sprout or dangle from a scrolling vine of tendrils, buds and leaves. These bands, on the shoulder of the hookah and on the splayed flare at the bottom, are framed by margins of geometric quatrefoil flowers against a black enamel ground. At the top of the body, just below the neck of the hookah, is a band of mauve lappets. The gradually widening neck of the hookah is decorated with a frieze of five small oval cartouches enclosing irises, miniature versions of the cartouches below. Around the base of the neck is a flanged projecting collar decorated with green lappet.

A bell-shaped silver-gilt hookah base now at the Victoria and Albert Museum is enamelled in a similar manner, with six cartouches each containing a Hyderabadi poppy with a smaller frieze of similar cartouches to the neck. This is published in Mark Zebrowski, Gold, Silver & Bronze from Mughal India, 1997, p. 87, pl. 74. The Hyderabadi poppies demonstrate Zebrowski’s observation that the Lucknow floral motifs are derived as much from Deccani opulence as they are from Mughal naturalism, and both influences were absorbed into and transformed within the distinctive Lucknow vocabulary.

The Victoria and Albert Museum hookah base is also illustrated by Stephen Markel in his chapter, “This Blaze of Wealth and Magnificence: The Luxury Arts of Lucknow” in Stephen Market with Tushara Bindu Gude, India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, 2011, p. 201, no. 90.

In discussing the ornamentation of the hookah base, Markel observes that “The newly envisioned culture of Lucknow was manifested in the decorative arts primarily through the creation of and ‘branding’ of myriad works with a distinctive style of lush floral imagery and select motifs. Individual flowering plants in the Mughal style occasionally still appear, often demarcated by elegant cartouches, but their botanical structures and the overall decorative programs of Awadh objects are much busier in composition than on Mughal precursors. In the mature style of decorative art that developed during the rule of Asaf al-Daula, the predominant ornamentation consists of stylised irises, lilies, poppies, roses, rosettes and other blossoms both real and imaginary, all burst into bloom”.(1)

1. Stephen Market with Tushara Bindu Gude, India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow, 2011, p. 201.

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