It took a lot of time and effort to make Bidri ware. The piece was first cast in an alloy that was
mainly zinc, then smoothed. The design was drawn on, then chiselled out to an even depth.
Silver sheet or wire (occasionally brass and gold) was inlaid in the chiselled design flush
with the surface. As a final touch, the piece was coated with a cocktail of chemicals
and Bidar mud. This gave the alloy a rich black colour from which the silver stood out in brilliant contrast.
Early Bidri work was expensive, and at first available
only to the rich. Pieces were for social and ceremonial use; most common were the bases of hookahs
'hubble-bubble' pipes or items for preparing and serving
pan, parcels of nuts and spices wrapped in leaves that were eaten a the end of a meal as a digestive and stimulant.
As time went on, other items were added to the
repertoire; ewers, bottles with domed covers, candlesticks, rectangular boxes with hinged or
separate lids, and so on. They were often made to specific commission rather than for general sale.
In the second half of the 19th century, production of Bidri ware was
stepped up as it acquired admirers in the West. It was featured at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and taken up by lovers of the curious and exotic.
As a result, more places in India started to produce the ware. The form of decoration most frequently used at this time was a poppy cartouche, which could be adapted to a wide variety of surfaces and shapes.
Almost all Bidar work of the period uses it, though other centres had their own favourites - a floral,
diamond patterned lattice in Purnea, for instance, and fish in Lucknow.
With the increased production came a decline in quality, followed by a fall in demand. Though the manufacture of Bidri ware continues to this day, it is now only on a small scale, supported by government grants.
Bidri ware came to Britain from two sources; some of it was imported by retailers such as
Liberty's, who specialized in exotic decorative wares, and some was brought into the country by those who had lived or worked in colonial India.
As a result, items of Bidri ware quite often turn up at country auction rooms and dealers. The vast majority of these were made in the
19th century; earlier pieces are real finds, and may fetch high prices.
OLD BIDRI WARE
These valuable early pieces can be recognized by the frequent use made of brass in the
decorative detail and by the naturalistic, flowing quality of the floral inlay.
The majority of 18th-century Bidri pieces have well-spaced, bold motifs made from large pieces
of silver, while late 19th-century ones tend to have an all-over decoration that uses many very small pieces of silver.
Some 19th-century Bidri ware was made using inferior methods; in Lucknow, for instance, it became the practice to lay the silver
directly on to the surface of the piece, rather than chisel out inlay channels.
Copies were made using inferior materials, but these are
generally easy to spot; tin plate often replaced the silver inlay, yellow brass rather than grey zinc alloy was used as the base material, and the bottles were spun or hammered rather than cast, making them much lighter in weight.
When buying, the most important consideration is the quality of the inlay. Check that the original black background has not been polished away and that the surface is as smooth as it's meant to be.
The condition of a piece is important in setting a price, though less than perfect pieces are still worth buying. It's not unusual, for
instance, for the silver inlay to start to come away from the body, eventually leaving just the carved
design in the base metal.
Pieces are generally thought of as collectable if 90 per cent or more of the silver is intact, though items even more distressed than this are worth picking up if the design is a particularly interesting or unusual one, or the piece is very early in date.