The Geometric Beauty of Sadeli Mosaic
by Bob Brooke
repeating geometric patterns of Sadeli Mosaic are what give it beauty
and richness. This decorative technique is a type of micro mosaic
featuring repeating geometric patterns. A highly skilled craft, it has
had a long history in India and the Middle East with early examples
dating back to the 16th century. In the 1800s, it became popular as a
decoration on a variety of boxes, card cases, and chess boards imported
from India. Since Bombay became a center of making them, they became
known as Bombay boxes.
The ancient art of Sadeli Mosaic is said to have been introduced from
Shiraz in Persia via Sind to Bombay, a long time before Indian boxes
appeared. The designs on early boxes look deceptively simple. The fact
is they emerged from a culture which had mastered geometry and
understood how to generate a pattern from a set number of points. The
patterns are so harmoniously combined that their incredible complexity
isn’t immediately apparent to the viewer.
While the technique may at first seem exquisitely complex, it’s
relatively simple. Nevertheless, it required a great deal of skill and
first step in creating a Sadeli mosaic is preparing thin rods by
scraping lengths of ivory, bone or wood into the desired shape, usually
triangular. Artisans then glue these long thin rods together with animal
glue, then slice them transversely to form a repeat pattern. To get
variety and contrast, they used woods like ebony and rosewood, along
with natural and green-stained bone and ivory. Often they mixed in
circular shaped rods of silver, pewter or tin. Finally, they would glue
the slices onto the surface of a wooden box, often made of sandalwood.
Craftsmen would then scrape the surface of the slices to level slight
variations. To achieve variations of patterns, they combined the
materials in different ways.
Persian and Indian makers of this exquisite decorative technique
displayed an understanding of the qualities of the different materials
they used. They combined substances, which could expand and contract
according to atmospheric conditions with others which were hard and
unyielding. The result was a sharp definition of the lines and patterns
which made up the whole design.
in the early part of the 18th century, Indian artisans made what came to
be known as Anglo-Indian boxes for the English residents living in
India, who eventually brought or sent them back to England. At the
beginning of the 19th century, India began exporting these boxes
commercially, although not in any significant numbers until the 1850s.
People valued them so highly that manufacturers of tins copied the
designs on them in the late 19th and early 20th century.
boxes fall into four groups: Rosewood or ebony boxes inlaid with ivory;
sandalwood boxes veneered in ivory, tortoiseshell, horn, quills or a
combination of these materials; sandalwood boxes covered with Sadeli
mosaic; and carved boxes often combined with Sadeli mosaic.
The first two categories came from Vizagapatam in East India while the
last two came from Bombay in West India.
English traders discovered the rich woods and intricate workmanship of
Indian artisans, so colonial government officials began to recognize the
work of the Indian artists and craftsmen as a source for satisfying the
need for furniture and boxes, which would both serve to enhance English
households in India. This gave rise to the cabinetmaking workshops in
Vizagapatam between Calcutta and Madras.
made the first boxes to be decorated with Sadeli mosaic of rosewood or
ebony with ivory, incised to give further definition to the decoration,
directly inlaid into the wood. The shape of the early boxes was either
sloping at the front with a flatter section at the back, reminiscent of
English writing slopes, or rectangular. Artisans inlaid the borders with
stylized floral scrolls and the centers with a single floral motif
following a circular or oval symmetrical or asymmetrical pattern. The
edging was of ivory pinned with ivory pins, or a combination of ivory
and wood. Both ornamental and protective, both helped protect the end
grain against the weather.
style of the ornamentation on the early boxes was formal yet flowing and
robust, a perfect compliment to the strength and grain of the rosewoods.
The boxes often had silver escutcheons and drop handles. Indian artisans
made this type of box up to the middle of the 18th century.
They also made ivory inlaid boxes in more conventional English shapes,
such as writing, document, and jewelry boxes later in the 18th and 19th
centuries. The designs by this time had moved on to covering more of the
box in an integrated pattern or with a simple edge decoration with a
small central motif.
In the early boxes, which date from the turn of the 18th to the 19th
century, there are large panels of mosaic covering the tops and sides.
It took incredible skill to cover such large areas without any wavering
of the pattern. To further enhance the symmetry of these boxes, artisans
impeccably matched the corners and where the sides joined the bottom.
To meet the demand, additional Indian workshops began making Sadeli
mosaic boxes in the latter part of the 19th century. The accuracy of
execution and the sharpness of design suffered, however, although boxes
from this period are pretty and easier to find.
The majority of the boxes found in the antiques market today are from
the early to mid 19th century. By the 1820s, Indian craftsmen covered
few boxes completely in Sadeli mosaic. By this time, they began to use
Sadeli mosaic more sparingly combined with other materials, mainly
ivory. Latter sandalwood boxes, veneered in ivory, had circles, diamonds
or bands of mosaic inserted as further decoration.
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