Quaint Elegance - The Craft of Bidri

The exquisite Bidri craft with its origins in Persia, is now a popular form in the Deccan region of India.

By Salar Jung Museum

Woman Smoking from a Bidri Huqqa (late 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The Origins

Bidri reminds one of the silvery stars against a dark sky. The underlying concept is ''beauty in contrast''. The beautiful craft of Bidri appears to have had its origins in Persia and its development and efflorescence happened at Bidar, now in the Karnataka state, in southern India. This was with royal patronage and the skill of the craftsmen. One look at the ''objets d’art'' created reveals the intricate and excellent workmanship involved. The Deccani miniature painting here depicts a woman smoking from a Bidri ''huqqa.'' or hubble-bubble.

Bidri Tray (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The Bidri art form is a kind of damascene work known as "koftagiri" -  a system of ornamentation consisting of encrusting gold or silver on iron objects. In 'Bidri' or 'Bidari', the metals silver, gold or brass are overlaid or inlaid in the designs to decorate objects made out of an alloy of zinc and copper. 

Bidri Huqqa Base (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The art flourished during the Bahmani (1347-1527 A.D) and Baridi (1489-1619 A.D) Sultanate rule in the Deccan region. Bidar was part of these Sultanates at different times where the art flourished. In Persia during the Abbasid period (750-1258 A.D), copper-inlaid objects were used in the royal Sultans’ palaces and merchants’ homes.

The technique became very popular over time to include gold and silver inlay work and was practised in Central Islamic lands - mainly Herat, Mosul, Cairo and Aleppo. It is thus highly possible that craftsmen migrated to the Deccan areas under the Bahmanis and Baridis from Persia during their rule, because it is known that they encouraged art and learning; who invited talented people to come and settle in their kingdoms. The craftsmen took it forward to make it one of India’s iconic metalcrafts.

This object is a ''farshi huqqa'' (hubble-bubble) from the 19th century. It is bell shaped with a broad base, meant to be placed on the floor. The flutings have a creeper design.

Bidri Fire-Cup (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

One school of thought also says that the craft was invented by Hindu kings of Bidar, to make items used during religious rituals, and later the craft flourished under the Sultanates. The origin remains bit of a mystery yet...

The object shown here is a Bidri "chilam" or fire-cup having a chevron pattern, and is from the 19th century.

Standing Buddha (probably 520-535)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

India during the 6th and 7th centuries Gupta period did have impressions of the Buddha in metal, with copper and silver inlay work; as well as the bronzes of 7th century to 10th century from Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh and the Jain bronzes from Western India from 6th to 10th century.

Brahmanical, Buddhist and Jain metal images from Eastern India, Central India and Deccan too have had inlay work which goes to prove that the craft of inlay was well-known in the Indian subcontinent since yore!

Model of a Bidri craftsman (1900/1935)Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum

The Crafting Process

The basic material from which the objects are crafted are an alloy of zinc, copper and lead. The mixture of zinc and copper is in the ratio of 16:1. Copper is added to make zinc take the polish better. The process involved in the production of a Bidri item of art involves casting, polishing, engraving, inlaying and blackening the alloy. 

Gereedschap (ca. 1590 - ca. 1596) by anoniemRijksmuseum

The casting is done in moulds which are covered with a mixture of wax and resin of red clay, supported by stops. The molten metal is poured in after the wax is melted out. The object to be made is polished on a lathe with a chisel or file.

Marking Tool (c. 1940) by Harley KempterNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Designs are drawn with a fine point and pure silver is hammered into the pattern. The final polish is achieved with sandpaper, charcoal and coconut oil.

Spittoon (1801/1899)Salar Jung Museum

The Persian patterns include the ''ashrafi ki booti'' (five pointed leaf pattern) ''teenpatti ki booti'' (three pointed leaf pattern), stars, vine creepers, poppy plant with flowers, and ''kairi'' (mango shapes). The ''mahi-pusht'' or fish scale pattern is another interesting design.

Bidri Flower Vase or Phooldan (circa 20th century)Salar Jung Museum

Blackening of the alloy is done using a solution of copper sulphate. This brightens the silver against the dark background. Sometimes gold is used in place of silver.

Another way of blackening the Bidri object was by using a particular type of clay found at Bidar fort, in dark areas away from sunlight and rain for years and having good oxidising properties. Some sources mention the clay contains saltpetre or potassium/sodium nitrate.

Bidri Bowl (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The soil is considered very special and a mystery surrounds its qualities. The beliefs around the soil were many. Some say it is from a mine and there are metals in it. It is even tasted by the craftsmen and they decide whether the quality is at par or not. It is also believed that this encouraged the craft in the area! This knowledge is learnt through generations. The soil is then mixed with water and used to blacken the alloy.

As per later scientific research the active agent for blackening the surface is an alkali nitrate, which when mixed with ammonium chloride and rubbed with water gives the dark hue.

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The Skilled Techniques

The techniques of making Bidri are very interesting and the terms are in Persian:
''Tarkashi'' which means inlay of wire,
''taihnishan'' - inlay of sheet,
''zarnishan'' - low relief,
''zarbulund'' - high relief,
and ''aftabi'' - cut out designs in overlaid metal sheet.

Mostly a combination of techniques are used to make the final piece. The different objects of Bidriware can vary in weight due to a difference in the composition of alloys. The heavier ones have more lead in them.

Lady Enjoying Huqqa (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

This is a miniature painting, from Burhanpur, 19th century. This image shows a woman enjoying 'huqqa'. Placed beside her is also an 'ugaldan' or spittoon.

Water Pipe (huqqa) (circa 1880-1900) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

The whole arrangement of the 'huqqa' is clearly seen here. This 'huqqa' is made in silver, from late 19th century and is currently in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The 'huqqa' is a pipe traditionally used for smoking flavoured tobacco. The tobacco is placed in a bowl and heated with burning charcoal, producing smoke that is drawn through an urn of water that cools it and then into a long tube with an attached mouthpiece. The ''mohnal" is the mouth piece attached at the end of the water pipe.

Chandeliers at Dewan DeodiSalar Jung Museum

Salar Jung's Amazing Collection

An amazing collection of Bidri  is seen  in the collection of the Salar Jung Museum at Hyderabad. Consisting of nearly 600 pieces from the 16th to 20th century, the collection has huqqa (hubble-bubble) bases, ewers, trays, basins, boxes... 

Bidri Rose-Water Sprinkler (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

There's the ''abkhora'' (water bowl), tas or cooking pot, ''katora'' ( water cup), ''Surahi'' (jug), ''chilam'' (fire cup), ''mohnal'' (mouth piece for ''huqqa'' pipe) ''changair'' (garland carrier), ''gulab-pash'' (rose water sprinkler),''ittardan'' (scent box), soap-boxes,''dibiya'' (small box), ''dibba'' (box),''muqaba'' (dome shaped box), and ''pandan'' (box for betel and its accompaniments).

Bidri Aftaba or Ewer (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

''Aftabas'' and ''sailabchis'', meaning ewers and basins, were very popular in the ''zenana'', the women’s compartments and sitting spaces. The decorations include interwoven star and square silver pieces in rows resembling a chessboard, intermingling poppy stems with buds, leaves and flowers. Other utility and decorative pieces include fire-cups, goblets, boxes, trays and vases with a variety of designs and made using different techniques.

Bidri Aftaba or Ewer (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The collection also has "ugaldan" (spittoon), "thali" (plate), "degchi" (bowl-shaped vessel), "mir-e-farsh'' (floor-weight), "palang-paer" (cot legs), ''shamadan'' (candelabra), "sini" (tray) and "phooldan" (vases in pairs).

This elegant ewer or 'aftaba' from the 18th century is kettle shaped and is filled through a small opening on the top of the handle. It has a curved spout and a three-leaf design repeated all over with scrolls near the neck and base. This is done in silver 'taihnishan', 'tarkashi' and 'zarbulund' techniques.

Bidri Sailabchi or Basin (circa 18th century)Salar Jung Museum

Seen here is a ''sailabchi'' or basin, with a melon shaped body and petal fluted, diamond shaped holes on the cover. It is done in ''tarkashi'', ''taihnishan'' and ''zarbulund'' work, from the 18th century.

Bidri Huqqa BaseSalar Jung Museum

The Journey of the Craft

According to sources, the craft was brought to India almost 1000 years ago by migrants to Ajmer in Rajasthan, by a nobleman, Khaja Mohiuddin Chishti, and his followers. Much later one artisan Abdullah-bin-Khaisar migrated to Bijapur who taught the craft to some locals. Later when the Bahamani kingdom was established in southern India, Bidar became one of its provinces, while the others being Gulbarga, Daulatabad and Berar. 

Bidri huqqa base (circa 18th century)Salar Jung Museum

Articles presented to Allauddin II (1434-1457 A.D) of Bidar during his coronation, impressed him and he invited the craftsmen to settle at Bidar itself. He gave it the name 'Bidari' or 'Bidri' by which it is still known. The craft got royal patronage with the craftsmen being given facilities and comforts to carry out their work by making huqqas, sailabchis, aftabas, and paes for the palace.

Here is a bud or 'qali' shaped 'huqqa' base, with a four-petal flower pattern in ogee panels. It has an elongated leafy design on neck and bottom, from the 18th century.

Bidar Fort (circa 14th-15th century AD) by Sultan Alla-Ud Din BahmanOriginal Source: Amit Chattopadhyay

When the Bahmani kingdom collapsed five independent kingdoms took birth. These were Bijapur, Ahmadnagar, Golconda, Berar and Bidar. Amir Ali Barid established the Barid Shahi dynasty.

By the first half of the 17th century Bidar got annexed to the Bijapur Sultanate. Aurangzeb took it in 1656 A.D and Bidar came under the rule of Nizam I, when he declared independence from the Mughals early in the 18th century.

Rangeen Mahal Ceiling, Bidar Fort (circa 14th-15th century AD) by Sultan Alla-Ud Din BahmanOriginal Source: Alosh Bennet

Bidar still remained the main centre of this craft, but from about 1770 A.D. it spread to other places like Lucknow of Awadh (now Uttar Pradesh), Purnea in Bihar and Murshidabad in Bengal.

The items produced were used by Deccani and Mughal nobility, princes of Rajasthan, Punjab Hill states, Bengal, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Western India.

Portrait of Thakur Sahib Singh (circa late 18th century)Salar Jung Museum

Seen here is a miniature painting from the late 18th century from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, depicting Thakur Sahib Singh on horseback. His attendants walk alongside - one holds a 'huqqa' for him to smoke from, clearly a Bidri type.

Bidri Betel Box (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The Asaf Jahis or Nizams of Hyderabad were very fond of Bidri-craft and patronised it for articles for use in their court and to be given as gifts. They ordered the items required to their atelier of artisans at Bidar who crafted a variety of vessels and other items including ornate buttons.

The Bidri ware seen here is an ornate betel box or 'pandan' with twelve compartments, crenellated and leaf shaped with floral and creeper designs from the 19th century.

The Crystal Palace at Hyde Park, London (1851) by John Jabez Edwin MayallThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Bidri-craft was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 at London and Paris Universal Exposition in 1855. It got highly appreciated in Europe. The Nizam of Hyderabad presented Bidri articles to Albert Edward, Prince of Wales when he visited India in 1875-76. These articles were later displayed at the Paris Universal Exposition in 1878 and also in the U.S.A.

This is an old image of the Great Exhibition in 1851, at Crystal Palace in London's Hyde Park where Bidri ware was displayed.

Exh Foreign Paris 1855 "Exposition Universelle" & LaterLIFE Photo Collection

Here is an illustration of a view at the Universal Exposition in 1855 at Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris. Bidri ware was on show here to an appreciative audience.

Portrait of Salar Jung I (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

Nawab Mir Turab Ali Khan, better known as Sir Salar Jung I, was responsible for many administrative reforms in the erstwhile Hyderabad State which also included revival of the Bidri ware industry. He was 'diwan' or prime-minister (1853-1883) to three Nizams of the Asaf Jahi line.

Portrait of Nawab Mir Osman ali Khan, Nizam VII of Hyderabad-Deccan State (circa 20th century)Salar Jung Museum

Here is a portrait of Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan, Nizam VII of the Asaf Jahi dynasty.

Let's look closer into the painting at the details!

The portrait depicts a dome shaped box on the ornate table in the backdrop. Bidri ware was well used in the Asaf Jahi courts and households of the royals and nobility of Hyderabad-Deccan.

Bidri betel-box (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

And here is a similar betel box with a circular tray.

The vertical edge has a floral panel in the centre and linear borders on outer surface. The upper portion is fluted, having a bud shaped knob. This is an architectonic object shaped like a dome.

Bidri Floor-Weight or Mir-E-Farsh (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

Early Bidriware made by the craftsmen depicted beautiful vegetal and floral pattern with Persian motifs. The designs incorporated local influences too which include motifs like the 'swastika' and the lotus. Many designs of Middle Eastern origin and Egyptian floral design are also seen.


There is an European influence like French design in Bidriware made in the 18th century. These might be by the demand from the French who had by then come to India. Some pieces show a blend of Persian and European design too.

Seen here is a 'mir-e-farsh' or floor weight with a square base, denticulated circle and knob at the top. It has floral festoons and a scroll design. This is a "taihnishan" work.

Bidri Goblet (circa 20th century)Salar Jung Museum

Towards the end of the 18th century the art seemed to have lost its previous aura and the market at Hyderabad, some distance from Bidar, was full of Bidriware cast away from the house of aristocrats. However some British officers like E. B Havell, Prof E. E Speight who worked in the Nizam’s service (erstwhile rulers of Hyderabad) tried to revive the art. The Nizam Government accorded state help to the artisans and workshops appeared in Hyderabad too.

Bidri Spice Box (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The objects and other utilitarian-ware being produced changed their shapes and utility with the advent of the new age. Cigar-boxes, ashtrays, vases, cufflinks, fruit bowls and other items made their entry. Motifs from the Ajanta cave murals got depicted along with Persian motifs.

Bidri Spittoon (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

The other centres for similar work in India are Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, Purnea in Bihar and Murshidabad in Bengal. In the 1950s and 1960s the major co-operative societies of the craft at Hyderabad were Mumtaz Co-operative Society and Gulistan Co-operative Society. Bidri craft is still highly valued and has workshops in contemporary India of the 21st century and been awarded the Geographical Indication (GI) registration.

Bidri Abkhora or Water Pot (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

There have been National Awardees like Syed Tassaduq Hussain in 1969 and later Shah Rasheed Ahmed Quadri (also awarded ShilpGuru Award in 2015), Abdul Hakeem, Mohammed Najeeb Khan, Shah Majeed Quadri, Mohammad Moizuddin and Mohammed Abdul Rauf.

A new revival of the craft seems to be happening by introduction of new designs and items which include jewellery, paperweights, paper clips, clock-holders, lampshades, key-holders, envelope openers, pen-stands and floor tiles.

Bidri Soap-Box (circa 20th century)Salar Jung Museum

Slowly with time the skilled workmanship of old masters has given way to new designs including folk idioms. Outlets are there at Bidar and Hyderabad for the visiting tourist and the local craft enthusiasts looking for something unique and precious; both the places being rich in history and heritage. This exquisite craft which is exported from India has a market with discerning art lovers. The craft is sold at retail outlets, Government emporia and online by different e-commerce sites.

Bidri scent bottle holder (circa 19th century)Salar Jung Museum

At present the craft has workshops at Bidar and Hyderabad. The Government of India and State Governments support the craft to ensure larger markets and preserve the art form which has been revived many times by successive rulers during its long chequered history.

Credits: Story

Exhibit curation: Soma Ghosh

Photography: M. Krishnamurthy and Bahadur Ali

Research Assistance: Dinesh Singh

Special thanks to Dr. A. Nagender Reddy, Director, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad.


References:

1. Anil Roy Choudhury, Catalogue, Bidriware, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, 1961.
2. Census of India 1961, Vol II - Andhra Pradesh, Delhi: Manager of Publications,1967.
3. Narayan Sen, Catalogue on Damascene and Bidri Art, Indian Museum Calcutta, 1983.
4. Krishna Lal, Catalogue, National Museum Collection Bidri Ware, National Museum of India, New Delhi, 1990.
5. Jagdish Mittal, Bidriware and Damascene work in Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian Art, JKMMIA, Hyderabad, 2011.
6. http://granthaalayah.com/Articles/Vol4Iss3/19_IJRG16_B03_27.pdf
7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bidriware
8. www.thefreedictionary.com/Huqqa
9. Video captions: Sahapedia

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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