This impressive silver durbar set is significant not just for its magnificent quality and condition but also for its completeness. The silver set, cast and chased before being partly gilded comprises two lidded pandans with stands, three rosewater sprinklers (gulab pash) with stands, three perfume stands, a large basin set onto a circular tray, and three components from a hookah.
Whilst undoubtedly a symbol of material wealth, a set such as this held an important practical purpose in the highly choreographed world of Indian court politics. Central to politics and diplomacy, the durbar is the formal meeting of the ruler’s court with visitors to the court received, honours conferred, and business conducted. By the 18th century the durbar was a highly formal affair with specific ceremonies that had to be observed. It was important that foreign visitors to the Mughal or other Indian courts respected and observed the courtly customs and reciprocated them whilst receiving visitors themselves in the hope of achieving commercial and political goals.
Depictions of Indian rulers holding durbar are widely known and in many the components of a durbar set – rosewater sprinklers, pandans, perfume stands and hookah pipes – can be found. The hookah would have been used throughout the meeting alongside the perfume stands with their green-painted stems and concealed perfume bottles (‘itr dam) within. Meanwhile the passing around of the pandan and use of the rosewater sprinklers was taken to indicate the end of the durbar.
The pandan was intended for holding the components necessary for preparing pan, small pouches of edible leaves assembled from chopped betel nut, lime and spices which is taken as a digestif. Edward Moor, writing in 1794, gives a full account of the highly formal and intricate gifting procedures and other rituals that occurred during durbar. He noted that the passing around of pan from ornate pandans was taken to be ‘what, in England, we should call a hint for taking leave’ (Moor, A Narrative of the Operations of Captain Little’s Detachment and of the Mahratta Army, commanded by Purseram Bhow; during the Late Confederacy in India, against the Nawab Tippoo Sultan Bahadur, London, 1794, p.373). He later warns that to not observe every formality, strictly according to the rank of the parties, would be considered highly indecorous by the host (Moor, op cit., p.377), potentially resulting in a disastrous outcome for the day’s business.
All the components of the present durbar set are decorated with a striking ‘tear drop’. These are formed of recesses which are punched into the surface of the silver, leaving the surrounding ground gilded. The result is something of a trompe l’oeil with the polished concave silver tear drops giving the suggestion of the surface being lavishly set with diamonds. This decorative technique is an uncommon one although a rosewater sprinkler of similar decoration is in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Inv.328-1878, illustrated here) and a silver footed bowl and stand decorated in the same manner was part of the Stuart Cary Welch Collection, sold at Sotheby’s London, 06 April 2006, lot 120. Whilst such individual components are thus known, no similar set of any comparable size is known.
With so few comparable examples there is some speculation as to the exact place of manufacture of this set. The footed bowl formerly belonging to Stuart Cary Welch has been attributed to Hyderabad in the second half of the 18th century. Yet the rosewater sprinkler in the Victoria & Albert Museum was taken from the treasury at Seringapatam following the defeat of Tipu Sultan. This raises the question of whether it was created in Mysore or was simply acquired elsewhere a nd added to the royal collection.
Despite the apparently unity of the present set, records show that it was not acquired in its entirety but assembled over time. The core of the group, the two pandans and the rosewater sprinklers all with their trays, were in the Clive Collection by 1766 and they are recorded in a list of goods sent to Lady Clive from India (papers in the India Office Library, box XVIII, no.8). These components also all share an identical lenticular pattern and design indicating they were obtained first. The perfume stands are then listed as part of an inventory of Powis Castle in 1774 before the rest seems to appear by a 1775 inventory (Susan Stronge, ‘Gold and Silver’ in Archer, Rowell and Skelton, Treasures from India: The Clive Collection at Powis Castle, London, 1987, p.74). What this does suggest is that these pieces date from the third quarter of the 18th century as it appears that having been pleased with acquiring the first part of the set, Robert Clive was able to add pieces of the same style later – perhaps even commissioning them himself.
This wonderfully ornate and complete set is clearly of the highest quality and befitting an imperial treasury. Not only does it help to understand the complex ceremonial durbar customs in 18th century India but reflects the lives of the enormously wealthy English ‘nabobs’ like Robert Clive. We know from his memoirs that Clive despised India and could not wait to return to England, but many British East India Company officials felt very much at home and tried to fully embrace local customs. A painting in the Victoria & Albert Museum shows one such official, William Fullerton of Rosemount, lounging against a baluster cushion smoking a hookah with rosewater sprinklers and a pandan around him (IM.33-1912, illustrated here). Typically, these accoutrements signify royalty due to their courtly association and function. The collecting and use of these sets by Clive and other British figures in India attests to the high position in which these Company officials found themselves within the Indian political system. It is also indicative of the mentality of these newcomers, equating their position with that of an Indian prince.