The UK government has placed a temporary export bar on an “incredibly rare” Indian silver Durbar set, made up of rosewater sprinklers, paan caskets and huqqa bases worth around 730,000 pounds, to offer a gallery or institution in Britain an opportunity to acquire it for public display.
The set, believed to have been used in Mughal court assemblies in India, was among the many belongings of Robert Clive — referred to as “Clive of India” for his central role in establishing Britain’s colonial domination over India in the 18th century.
Culture minister Caroline Dinenage said she was imposing the temporary block, which will run until April and could be extended till September if funds are found to keep the collection in Britain, to help the public better understand the UK’s “long friendship” with India.
“These beautiful items showcase the luxury of the Indian court and offer us a glimpse into the inner workings of how the British interacted with traditional Indian ceremonies,” said Dinenage.
“I hope that an institution is able to save this collection for the public to help us better understand our nation’s long friendship with India,” she said.
The elaborate silver set is likely to have been a part of masses of precious items the former British Governor-General of Bengal is thought to have brought back with him from the Indian subcontinent.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) said last week that the items were listed in an inventory of Clive’s possessions made in 1766 and offer a rare glimpse into the manners and customs of courtly life in 18th century India.
“Although a controversial figure, Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive, known as “Clive of India” was the first British Governor of the Bengal Presidency and is credited — along with Warren Hastings — with laying the foundations of the British Empire in India,” the DCMS notes.
The minister’s decision follows advice from the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), which noted that the set was a “striking assemblage” of objects with an extraordinary range of component parts.
“A variety of silver vessels, used in formal receptions or Durbars, provided the essential aesthetic and courtly backdrop for doing business in Moghul India. This is the most complete and splendid known set,” said Committee Member Peter Barber.
“Assembled by Robert Clive while he was working for the East India Company, it demonstrates how the British adopted Indian customs in pursuit of their commercial and political goals. It also enables people today to evaluate accusations of greed thrown at Clive by his British contemporaries,” he claimed.
Barber notes that more research needs to be done on how and from where Clive assembled the set, which is very important also because, uniquely, it has an “unbroken provenance” going back to the later eighteenth century.
“Every effort should be made to retain this Durbar set in the United Kingdom so that it can be viewed, researched, and its ambiguous meanings drawn out by future generations,” he added.
The committee felt that the set was of significance to the study of the history of the British in India through its association with the undeniably controversial figure of Robert Clive, whose collection of Indian art is well documented.
The RCEWA made its recommendation on the grounds of the Durbar set’s outstanding significance for the study of silver and the culture of court etiquette, and diplomatic gift-giving between Britain and India within the broader Mughal context.
It is likely that the set, comprising 19 pieces including rosewater sprinklers with stands, caskets for paan, and components of huqqa bases, would have been used at court.
Contemporary paintings depict regional rulers reclining on a bolster surrounded by members of their court with an array of rosewater sprinklers, caskets and perfume containers, all of which are represented in this set.
Each piece has surface decoration of tear-drop motifs carefully accentuated by mercury gilding and all had a function in the elaborate rituals of a formal Durbar, or court assembly.
Those attending the Durbar would be sprinkled with rosewater from one of the slender-necked vessels, or given an attar of roses from one of the perfume holders.
The two lidded boxes, or pandans, each of different form, contained paan or small pouches made of edible betel leaves wrapped round aromatic spices and chopped betel nuts. Paan was chewed as a mild stimulant, but in a Durbar would be offered on silver salvers to indicate that the audience had come to an end.
According to experts, the items being prevented from leaving the UK is important because they add another dimension to the understanding of Clive of India’s career, which has been seen almost exclusively from a Western perspective, as it demonstrates that he adopted formal Indian customs.
The RCEWA is an independent body, serviced by the UK’s Arts Council, which advises ministers on whether a cultural object, intended for export, is of national importance under specified criteria.
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