Antique Indian Chess Sets

India has a long association with chess. The modern (500 year old version) of chess is linked to an earlier version called Shatranj that turned up in Indian from around the 6th century AD which in turn is thought to have been derived from an earlier game called Chaturanga. India had the materials and expert craftsmen needed to make fine objects and chess sets were a natural fit.

The British East Indian Company was setup in India in the early 1600s, by the later part of the 1700s they controlled much of India. A vast amount goods were created in India and exported to Europe (mostly Britain) to fulfill demand. The lower cost of skilled labor in India allowed the items to be priced competitively.

Most of the Indian sets available to collectors today come from mid 18th Century onwards. The majority of these sets were created for, and targeted at the export market where demand was strong. This affected the design and themes of the sets themselves.

The majority of sets created in the 18th and 19th century were decorative playing sets carved and turned from ivory. These were produced in relatively large quantities. A much smaller number of figural sets were also produced.

Indian Export Playing Sets

The majority of these sets have pieces that are made from several turned and carved sections that screw together to form the whole piece. This helped reduce material cost by wasting less ivory, which was expensive relative to labor costs. Note most English sets playing sets are also constructed in this way, however the actual screws are usually longer in the English sets and this can be useful when trying to work out the origin of a set that is hard to categorize. The majority of Indian sets were made from Indian ivory and not African ivory which was used predominately in sets made in Europe*.

Dating, naming and identifying the exact region of origin of Indian sets is not an exact science. A lot of the current information seems to be based on a minimal amount of data. Below is my opinion taking into account what the major reference books have proven and my own observations from seeing and handling dozens of these sets of the last two decades. If you have any additional evidence on the origin and dating of the sets below please drop me a line and I will update the article and cite you if you wish.

Here are eight representative antique Indian playing sets :

1.     The set below I believe is an early pattern of an Indian export playing set probably made in Vizagapatam from the mid to late 18th century.  Theses sets are very finely turned and carved and are not overly decorated as some of the later 19th century sets are. All the pieces are in excellent proportion relative to each other as well. The king is 5inch tall. The opposing side is stained green.



2.      The photo below is of another fine late eighteen century Vizagapatam playing set(king 5.5 inches). Note the ribbed balusters on each piece and the fine proportion of the pieces to each other. The opposing side is stained black, which was a more prevalent color than red during the 18th century. When evaluating one of these sets look for fine delicate carving on the knights and consistent quality throughout the set.

 

 

3.      Below is a later Vizagapatam set (photo courtesy of Bloomsbury auction house), you can see some form similarities between this set and the first two sets shown.  I personally don’t think these sets are as well made or proportioned as the previous sets, the bases never look big enough to me given the high of the pieces and the decoration is a little mechanical in appearance. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that  the set below was  produced at the same time as the first two sets shown and that it may been more expensive set originally due to the extra decoration ! The set below also turns up in green and natural. Green and natural sets are slightly more valuable because  red and white sets are more common.

 

4.     Below is an example of a pattern called `Pepys`, the name is derived from a similar set supposedly owned by English diarist Samuel Pepys from the 17th century. Again there does not seem to be solid evidence for this. The set below is from the early part of the 19th century. This example is nearly 6 inches tall.  Sets of this style have been become quite rare and as a result prices are strong.

 

5.     Another high end pattern is called Kashmir/Berhampur. I have not seen any evidence that that these sets were actually made in these areas of India. These sets are finely carved and elaborately pierced, note the turned up edges on the bases. Because these sets have some many protruding points, they are often damaged and in need of extensive repair.
Here is a link to a example (this link is from Elizabeth Gann’s site) : http://i22.photobucket.com/albums/b340/chessqueen/Antique%20Kashmir/KashmirFB.jpg

 

6.     The most common Vizapapatam sets were made in the mid 19th century, they come in a few different materials, ivory vs stained ivory, ivory vs sandal wood, ivory vs horn (see horn pieces below). These sometimes come up for sale with their original ivory games boxes and containers for the pieces elaborated covered in pen and ink decoration. These make nice presentation items, but generally the sets themselves are not as fine or large as the sets shown earlier.

 

7.     The Anglo Indian set below follows more closely the from of English sets it was inspired from. This makes sense given the market it was target at. The set below has a 4 inch king.  You will see these being sold as English, the cruder carved knight heads are a sign of a Indian set, give that English sets of this size and type usual have finely carved knights. In general these sets are less valuable than the more elaborate sets shown earlier.

 

8.     Indian Muslim sets do not have any figural representation because creating images/objects that depict living things is in violation of the Muslim religion. These sets come in a variety of forms and some can be elaborately decorated with geometric patterns highlighted in gold gilt. They were made throughout a wide period of time so dating can be difficult. The set below is a plainer one from  the 19th century.

 

In general there are variations on all of these types and no two sets are ever totally identical. Size and quality also vary, in general the larger sets are better made.

In my opinion given the quality age and size of these sets they are still under appreciated, however over the last few years prices has started to rise more significantly as the number of sets available has dropped off dramatically.

The more sets you handle the easier it will be to tell the quality of any set you are offered. You can still pick up nice quality early Vizagapatam set with a 5 inch king from 2k-3k sterling. In fancy antique stores on Bond St. London the price would be more like 6k sterling. “Kashmir/Berhampur” style sets are a more expensive and the finest large sets can be very expensive.

In the 20th century smaller lower quality sets were made. These should be avoided if possible. Today bone replicas of 18th and  19th century Indian sets are made and available at a reasonable prices. However the workmanship is not that of the antique sets. Be careful, I have seen more than one replica set being sold as 19th century.

Indian Or Chinese sets ?

OK, now for something a little more controversial, I think its possible than Indian craftsmen were responsible for some of the sets previously know as Burmese and supposedly produced in Canton China. The two sets below are examples of the “Burmese” pattern. The first one was probably produced in Canton China, given the carving style and the pierced ivory decoration which is seen on other Chinese ivory objects like draughts, ivory boxes etc. The second one I believe was made in India and inspired by the first set. The way the carving is handled and the faces are distinctly Indian in style in my opinion.  These sets are usually judged on there quality and size, so their origin today does not affect their values significantly. I think the large Indian copies are far superior in terms of quality and finish !

 

 

The Burmese pattern in my mind were always closely connected to so called Macao pattern. Again the current thinking is that these were produced in Canton. Its possible that some “Macao” sets were also produced in India. I think the Indian manufactures would produce sets in any form that was  in fashion in Europe,  so if Chinese objects was in vogue then they would create sets based off existing Chinese sets. I am looking forward to emails on this matter to prove me wrong ! The price has risen steeply on these sets over the last few year. They are very attractive sets and the larger once are usually well made with beautifully modeled heads. They were produced in much smaller numbers than the Burmese sets.

 

 

Indian Figural Sets

Many of these were produced as decorative objects and never really meant to be played with. These are much rarer than the playing sets. The construction techniques are different, some are carved from one piece of material while in others the main figures are attached with pegs to the bases. These sets were expensive originally because of the amount of material needed and the extensive carving required compared to most playing sets.

 

 Here are four of the well known forms below

1.     Early 19th Century Delhi John Set, the slang name "John" was used to describe the army of the  East India Company   . Here is a link to one currently (late 2005) for sale : http://www.mallettantiques.com/begin.asp?email=Y&strReferenceID=ow038&CatID=108&intSectionID=6
If you have to ask the price you cannot afford it !

2.     Mid 19th Century Rajasthan set (photo courtesy of Bloomsbury auction house).
These sets are constructed from separate ivory components which are cemented together and then lacquered and gilded. Rajasthan sets vary in quality and size significantly. The better sets can be charming and very decorative. In the early 1990s they were more valuable than Delhi John sets. sets.

 

3.     The 18th century Central Province sets are probably the rarest, some have a fantastic sculptural/naive quality and are not overly decorated. I think they are unvalued at the moment.  Good examples turn up infrequently.

 

4.     Late 19th century Sahib Bust set, these sets are charming, the gold gilding and polychrome really enhances these bust sets and are usually not over the top. These sets seem to have been produced in relatively small numbers and few large sets of this type have come onto the market in the last ten years.

 

In general all these figural sets vary more than the playing sets in terms of appearance, quality and size. The Delhi John sets are the most sought after and good examples can fetch very large sums, 20k sterling++. In the 20th century smaller and lower quality sets were made. These sets are also now being made in bone but again the quality and grace of the earlier sets is generally lacking.

 

Notes and References

·        Indian ivory has a tendency to get whiter over time, whereas African ivory yellows more.

·        Reference material : Master Pieces : Gareth Williams, …..

·        Related link on Indian sets : http://history.chess.free.fr/india.htm

·        Reference to modern bone Indian sets http://www.thechessstore.com/product/PSB700

·        High end recreation mammoth ivory sets http://www.elizabethgann.com/oleg2004.html

Contact me : dermot_rochford@yahoo.co.uk if further information.

This article is still under construction, I intend to update it over time. Copyright Dermot Rochford 2005.
Please do not reproduce or use any material from this article without my prior consent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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