The inscription that runs around this qalamdan is quatrain in Persian which reads:
ba khatt-e mishkin-e u darad sauda qalam , zanke darad makhzani chun 'anbar-e sara qalam , hich midani ka rang-e khama sorkh az bahr-e chist , z atash-e ah-e del-e ma sukht sar ta pa qalam
'The pen is melancholy with its musk-coloured script , Because the pen has a supply like the purest ambergris , Do you have no idea why the colour of the pen is red? , Because it is burning from the flames of the sigh of our hearts'.
Gujarat is first mentioned as the centre of mother-of-pearl work in 1502, when the King of Melinde, on the East Coast of Africa, presented Vasco de Gama with a 'bedstead of Cambay, wrought with gold and mother of pearl, a very beautiful thing' (The Three Voyages of Vasco da Gama, London, 1869, quoted in Simon Digby, 'The mother-of-pearl overlaid furniture of Gujarat; the holdings of the Victoria and Albert Museum', in Robert Skelton et. al (ed.), Facets of Indian Art, London, 1986, p.215). Gujarati mother-of-pearl work can be classified into two groups. The first of these comprises those items either made entirely of mother-of-pearl, or a wooden core completely covered entirely in mother-of-pearl. For an example of this work see lot 315 in this sale.
The second group, into which this qalamdan fits, consists of a wooden article covered in a dark mastic and inset with pieces of mother-of-pearl. The production of this second group is generally thought of as the speciality of Northern Gujarat, particularly around Ahmedabad, Cambay, Surat and further west in Thattha. This attribution is largely due both to European travellers' accounts and to Abu'l Fazl's Ain-i Akbari (1595), the celebrated historical work on the Akbar period written around 1595. That work refers to the province of Ahmedabad as a centre for exports including articles worked with mother-of-pearl. Penboxes are specifically mentioned as a form. This geographical attribution is further evidenced by the survival of mastic-inset and mother-of-pearl decorated domed cenotaph canopies which survive in the tombs of revered Sufi Shaykhs including Shah 'Alam at Rasulabad and Shaykh Ahmad Khattu at Sarkhej, both close to Ahmedabad and erected between 1605 and 1608 (Amin Jaffer, Luxury Goods from India. The Art of the Indian Cabinet-Maker, London, 2002, p.24).
The decoration of this second group most frequently takes the form of vegetal or geometric designs. Figural decoration, as seen on our qalamdan is rarer. One example, more 'rustic' than ours and with detailing in the mother-of-pearl which is now rubbed, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (I.S.24-1966, published in Digby, op.cit., figs. 9-10, pp.219-20). Another figural example of more comparable quality to this one, and also with a pair of confronted elephants at the centre of the composition, similar to those seen on the upper border of ours, is a panel formerly in the Jules Boilly collection (Digby, op.cit., p.221). Two shields - one in the Topkapi Museum and another in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello also have similar figural designs (the latter: Bg M 787, published in Islam specchio d'Oriente, Florence, 2002, no. 12, pp.54-55). A tray with a wonderful design of angels on a much larger scale is in a private collection. All of these share similar vegetal ornament in the background, with dense comma-shaped leaves springing from curling stems.
In some instances these luxury items were made for Indian patrons, but they seem to have been created predominantly for European, Near Eastern and Turkish export markets. Early records give an indication of the esteem in which they were held in Europe at this time. The King of France received a mother-of-pearl bed in 1529 and an inlaid coffer was inventoried in the collection of the Elector of Saxony in 1602.
The inspiration for Gujarati mother-of-pearl production remains unclear. A suggestion is that East Asian examples, such as Korean sutra boxes (caskets with bevelled lids, some attributed to the 12th-13th century), were imported to Western India, where the technique was emulated by local craftsmen. A variety of forms were produced, such as coffers, caskets, cabinets, penboxes, shields, a throne, gameboards, a bookrest, a large dish and even a pair of sandals.
The fragile nature of the medium has meant that only around 30 recorded examples survive, now almost entirely in museums. As well as those listed above, a related qalamdan, without the figural decoration but with similar calligraphic cartouches is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gifted to the museum by Joan Palevsky. A particularly interesting example which is signed Shaykh Muhammad Munshi Ghaznavi and dated AH 995 (1587 AD) is in the Benaki Museum (Benaki Museum. A Guide to the Museum of Islamic Art, Athens, 2006, no. 248, p.180). That example has a companion piece in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.