This exceptionally fine and very unusual masterpiece is probably one of the most lavish bowls ever made at the beginning of the 20th century and certainly one of the finest to have come to the market.
This piece reveals itself as a conundrum with two proposed resolutions obtained by attending at certain characteristics that define Burmese and Indian silverware of the 19th-20th century.
The repousse technique, which consists of carefully punching a design into a relief on the surface, alongside the chasing and engraving work on this bowl, is of a particularly high quality. At first the bowl stands on the very same technical and decorative scheme as any of the Burmese silver bowls found after the British wars in the country. Yet the shape is rather unusual for Burma ware, being that of an Indian water vase known as a lota or lotta.
Similar bowls of this shape and originating from northeast Shan province are known to be kept in private collections, which proves that the shape was been experimented with in the region of Burma. The vase terminates in a lotta neck followed by a band of continues scrolling foliage (typical of Poona in India), also similar to a traditional dha-zin-gwei stylized orchid-scrolling motif, is more closely related to the silverwork found in Kutch.
The central friezes are set in very high relief that dominates the piece, the base of the lotta is finished in upturned lotus petal design (known in Burma as kya-hlan). Tilly’s article, Modern Burmese Silverwork, helps us to date this piece, as it records there was a rage amongst Europeans for very high relief at the beginning of the 20th century. These figures have become much larger and show the introduction of Western perspective, a characteristic that Tilly also recorded in silverware from Burma by the 1900s.
The main frieze is relevant by the fact that no floral scrolling had been used to form houses and divide the lotta, but in certain way the division is made by large trunks of trees serve for that purpose.
The scenes that appear in these large friezes are set in noticeable high relief, very finely chased and engraved with exceptional details.
Burmese bowls usually include narratives and allegories of the 547 Jatakas or lives of Buddha.
This scene appears to be from the Ramayana or the Yama Zatdaw as it is known in Burma—the local homiletic literature saw Rama as a previous life of Buddha.
The narrative progresses of the scenes are divided into mainly four sections as follows:-
A palace comprised of a ritual gate, and surrounded by a wall with a ‘pagoda’ tower, encloses three interior buildings and two gates or niches inhabited by figures.
It is noticeable that one figure is holding a Gada mace, a South Asian weapon that is more often seen in Indian art.
A tree appears to act as frontier for different scenes, which is followed by another action in which war elephants, carrying turrets and archers on their back, battle against crocodilian creatures similar to the Burmese mythical creature the Pyinsa Rupa which is usually used in pairs in the Burmese ornamentations also it is close to the Indian mythical creature the Makara.
The next section is yet another very interesting scene which is showing a group of men in an attacking mode, some archers garbed in Burmese-style clothes and a noticeable cavalier man that is leading the attack against a wild boar that is attacking a fellow companion or a nomad that has fallen from the back of his horse.
The depiction of the cavalier is rather very noticeable and very familiar in Western art for it had been executed by someone who had a very good knowledge and insight to the world history, for the depiction of the cavalier was intended to show the cavalier wearing his elegant European cloths, this depiction and appearance is very similar to Alexander’s the III Mosaic (Alexander the great of Macedonia) which was found in the ancient Roman floor mosaic from the house of Faun in Pompeii-Italy also on a carving from Alexander’s sarcophagus which was originally discovered in Lebanon and was sent to Istanbul Archaeology Museum. This depiction was probably intended to remind the viewer about Alexander’s campaign to go in his invasions to the end of the world, which was meant to be at the time by concurring India.
The final scene represents a giant Burmese python snake (Naga), which has captured a warrior or a prince, being rescued by fellow archers and soldiers with swords and machetes. The overall assortment of individuals and foliage is dazzling and creates an uncanny sense of action due to the figures in perspective that appear in the background and foreground of the relief surface.
The Lotta’s underside Base is adorned and marked with the dancing peacock (KaDaung), a symbol typically associated with Burma’s konbung dynasty, which reined Burma from 1752 to 1885.
The imperial Burmese Konbaung dynasty Thabik had strict sumptuary laws with regards to the dancing peacock mark, which meant that the peacock seal was solely reserved for the ornamentation and apparel of the Burmese royalty.
This could possibly mean that the master who had participated in the making of this masterpiece was probably working for the Burmese Royal family in Burma.
The dancing peacock emblem was also used by the anti-colonial nationalist movement against the British Raj to conjure up dissent and was seen as a defiant symbol in the 1910s. Alongside the peacock, an incised inscription in Kannada script, an alphabet of South India, probably identifies the name of an owner. Therefore it‘s likely that this masterpiece was commissioned in the 1900’s by a wealthy Indian client or a British family.
To understand the hybridization of these two styles, one that on a first glance appears Burmese but that reveals strong aspects of Indian art, it is necessary to consider the administration system of the period in which the vase was fabricated: the beginning of the 20th century. At the time, and after the annexation of Burma to the British Empire, it was part of the administration that watched over India—it was only in 1937 that it passed to be administered directly by a different office: the Burma Office in London.
The context in which silversmiths were practicing their crafts was well established in India by the time the British annexed the northern part of the country, home to a huge number of silversmiths originally making silverware for the Mughal Empire and then for the British Raj. Thus, it is conscientious to say that where we find wealth it is possible to find silversmiths.
Since the silver used by the silversmiths was usually brought by their clients, they needed relatively few tools for their jobs, which allowed them to move freely from state to state if necessary. Most of Colonial powers, as exemplified by the Dutch and the British, with large numbers of Chinese and Indian artisans displaced through the end of the 19th century, were responsible of their relocation. The same process occurred with the state of Burma, with its simple economy dictated by the use of gold and silver as currency. It was this mobility of artisans what allowed the hybridity of pieces that mixed elements of traditions, the local and the new coming.
This bowl appears to be an example of interaction between Indian and Burmese communities.
The inclusion of the aforementioned band of floral scrolling in the Kutch silverware style accompanied by plain bands are characteristics of silverware found in Poona, one of the biggest cities in Maharashtra, West India.
The overall assortment of Indian elements in this scene—the shape of the vase, the iconography, the trees and foliage in the main frieze, and some parts of the decorative programme, points out to a syncretic product done by Burmese silversmiths relocated in India, or possibly was made by an Indian artist reproducing prototypes brought from Burma by Burmese artists.
This argument would be supported by the presence of Dancing Peacock at the base, a symbol that used to be engraved in the works of prolific silversmith Maung Aung Myat, from Thtetmeyo, and which probably served as reference for the work.
The Official Catalogue of the Delhi Exhibition 1902-1903 (Watt, 1903, 33-34) lists Hitapa Buchana and M.K Godbole as the most sought-after silversmiths in the region. Despite the fact that there is little to no information about these artisans, the present lotta also could have come from one of those workshops.
Yet the analysis on the hybridity of this piece cannot exclude that the bowl could have been manufactured in Burma by an assembly of Indian and Burmese artists working on a commissioned piece for an Indian client. We believe these two scenarios represent the context in which this superb lotta was created, and that also synthetises the resulting creativity out of the complex panorama present in a region of many cultural fusions.
Condition: Very good, minor wear and tear, and later repair.
Dimensions: 35cm diam. across width at widest point of body.
19.4cm diam. across width of top.
18cm diam. across width of base.
26cm of height.
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Silverware of South-East Asia, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Burmese Crafts: Past and Present, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Sylvia Fraser-Lu, Burmese Lacquerware, Weatherhill, 2002.
Harry L. Tilly, Modern Burmese Silverwork (with Photographs by P. Klier), The Superintendent, Government Printing, 1904.
John Lowry, Burmese Art, Victoria and Albert Museum, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London 1974
The Colonial and Indian Exhibition 1886, Official Catalogue, London: William Clowes and Sons Limited, 1886.
Harry L. Tilly, The Silverwork of Burma by with photographs by P Klier, Rangoon 1902
Harry L. Tilly, Modern Burmese Silverwork, Superintendent, Government Printing, 1904.
Wynyard R. T. Wilkinson, Indian Silver 1858-1947: Decorative Silver from the Indian Sub-Continent and Burma Made by Local Craftsmen in Western Forms, W Wilkinson & Indar Pashrical Fine Arts, London, 1997.
Wynyard R T Wilkinson, Mary-Louise Wilkinson and Barbara Harding, Burmese Silver from the Colonial Period, Arts of Asia, May-June 2013
City And Kings, Ancient Treasures From Myanmar, Edited by Stephen A. Murphy, Conan Cheong, Charlotte Galloway, Nan Kyi Kyi Khaing, Win Kyaing, Theresa McCullough, Elizabith H. Moore, Khin Ma Ma Mu, Heidi Tan, Khine Pyae Sone, San Win.
For another type of a Burmese python snake (Naga) please see the Royal epistle case owned by the National Museum, Yangon , lot No. 43 exhibited on pages 138 &139.
For a silver centrepiece by Maung Aung Myat featuring the dancing peacock see:
The Bristol Museum, Silver Centrepiece.