Description & Technical information

This fall-front writing cabinet or escritoire (escritório in Portuguese) is made from teak (Tectona grandis) veneered in East Indian ebony (Diospyros melanoxylon), East Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) and decorated with ivory, dyed ivory and sandalwood inlays. Its iron fittings include two wrought iron side handles, the hinges and lock plate. This, placed on the front, is in the shape of a double-headed eagle or gaṇḍabheruṇḍa, a Hindu mythological bird thought to possess magical strength and probably used to ward off evil and protect the precious contents of the cabinet from unscrupulous people.1 All the sides, except for the underside, are lavishly decorated following a carpet-like design, with wide borders in ebony with ivory fillets. The central fields are set in mirror, with large Persian-style baluster-shaped vases with trees of many leaves, flowers and birds. On the front, this motif is flanked by tigers crushing small mountain goats under their fierce paws; next to two smaller flowering trees crowned by peacocks attacking snakes set in perfect symmetry following Mughal taste.2 On the sides the central motif is flanked by hunters dressed in Islamic attire, aiming at birds with their bows and arrows; while in the back – the central field of rosewood and only the wide border of ebony – this same motif is flanked by two smaller trees and vultures, the mythical jaṭāyu, each pecking at their own chests while feeding their chicks not unlike the Christian pelican in her piety, an iconographic motif introduced in India by Portuguese missionaries. Jaṭāyu (literally “strong wind”) is the “devout bird” of Rāma and a Hindu demigod; king of the vultures as portrayed in the epic Rāmāyana, Jaṭāyu is the youngest son of Aruṇa, the vehicle of the sun-god Sūrya. This depiction, like that of gaṇḍabheruṇḍa, has a clear apotropaic function, to ward off evil.
The top side features the same central motif with a peacock in the middle, the treetop flanked by two large simurgh, mythical composite birds similar to phoenixes which, in their powerful claws, grasp elephants. This central motif is flanked by princely figures riding elephants accompanied by servants on foot holding banners. The inside of the fall-front features a smaller baluster-shaped vase with a flowering tree set on a table and flanked by a princely couple in Islamic attire; the courtship scene is flanked by larger flowering trees and attendants set in perfect symmetry. When open, the present writing cabinet reveals an exuberant decoration of fauna and flora. It is fitted with three tiers of drawers, with a large drawer on the centre occupying the lower and central tier. The upper tier, although simulating three, has one large drawer, while the two lower tiers have two each, placed at the sides of the central drawer. The high-quality inlay decoration of the smaller fronts consists of stylised flowering plants set in symmetry (with its red-dyed turned ivory pullers) flanked by aquatic birds and small bird on top. The large central drawer, features a two-dimensional depiction of a domed pergola or pavilion with a baluster running across the lower section, two flanking baluster-shaped columns which support the dome and are crowned by two facing birds, and a bird perched on the balustrade below.3
The present writing cabinet was modelled after European prototypes, portable objects which rank among the most prestigious pieces of storage furniture from the 16th century. The hinged front drops down to form a surface for writing, while the many drawers, some with individual locks, gave access to what was kept in the cabinet’s multiple compartments, such as documents, writing implements and paper, or even jewels and other valuables. This type of luxurious piece of furniture was prevalent in the interior furnishings of European noble and patrician households and portable fall-front cabinets of this type were a basic requirement of European officials, merchants and traders living and travelling in Asia. Small, precious writing cabinets and boxes made in Asia with unusual and expensive materials such as exotic hardwoods, tortoiseshell and ivory were much admired and avidly sought after in Europe due not only to their appealing design but also to their technical perfection. As is known by documentary evidence, namely from contemporary travel accounts, the production of this type of furniture was based in north-western India, namely the coastal regions of Gujarat and Sindh (in present-day Pakistan), which were long-standing centres of production of luxury goods where firmly established merchant communities from the Middle East, South-East Asia and Europe lived and worked.4 
Although clearly Mughal in style, objects such as the present cabinet would almost definitely not have been produced in the royal workshops of Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri or Lahore as has been argued5, given that information regarding the artistic output of these royal ateliers has survived and does not mention cabinetmaking.6 The present writing box belongs to a rare group of similarly decorated objects. A very similar example (32 x 48 x 39 cm) belongs to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. 122-1906.7 One other, entirely made from teak with ivory inlays, belongs to the museé national des Arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris, inv. MA12824.

[1] See Hugo Miguel Crespo, Luísa Penalva, “Joias Goesas: a Construção de uma Identidade Indo-Portuguesa. Goan Jewels: The Construction of an Indo-Portuguese Identity”, in Luísa Penalva, Anísio Franco (eds.), Esplendores do Oriente. Joias de Ouro da Antiga Goa. Splendours of the Orient. Gold Jewels from Old Goa (cat.), Lisboa, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga – Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 2014, pp. 57-90, ref. p. 74.

[2] See Robert Skelton, “A Decorative Motif in Mughal Art”, in Pratapaditya Pal (ed.), Aspects of Indian Art. Papers Presented in a Symposium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, October 1970, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1972, pp. 147-152; Stephen Markel, “Jades, Jewels and Objets d'Art”, in Pratapaditya Pal et al., Romance of the Taj Mahal (cat.), Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art – Thames and Hudson, 1989, pp. 128-169; Stephan Markel, “The Use of Flora and Fauna Imagery in Mughal Decorative Arts”, in Som Prakash Verma (ed.), Flora and Fauna in Mughal Art, Mumbai, Marg Publications, 1999, pp. 25-35; and Daniel Walker, Flowers Underfoot. Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era (cat.) London, Thames and Hudson, 1998.

[3] On the baluster column, see Koch Ebba Koch, “The Baluster Column - A European Motif in Mughal Architecture and its Meaning”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 45, 1982, pp. 251-262.

[4] See Amin Jaffer, Luxury Goods from India. The Art of the Cabinet-Maker, London, V&A Publications, 2002, p. 18; Pedro Dias, Mobiliário Indo-Português, Moreira de Cónegos, Imaginalis, 2013; and Hugo Miguel Crespo, Choices (cat.), Lisboa – Paris, AR-PAB, 2016, pp. 172-191, cat. 16.

[5] See Pedro Moura Carvalho, “What Happened to the Mughal Furniture? The Role of the Imperial Workshops, the Decorative Motifs Used, and the Influence of Western Models”, Muqarnas. An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World, 21, 2004, pp. 79-94.

[6] See Manuel Castilho (ed.), Na Rota do Oriente. Objectos para o estudo da arte luso-oriental. The Eastern Route. Objects for the study of Portuguese-Oriental art (cat.), Lisboa, Manuel Castilho Antiguidades, 1999.

[7] See Amin Jaffer, Luxury Goods from India. The Art of the Cabinet-Maker, London, V&A Publications, 2002, pp. 44-45, cat. 15.

Period:  17th century
Origin:  India
Medium: Rosewood, ivory and ebony
Dimensions: 26 x 40 x 32 cm (10¹/₄ x 15³/₄ x 12⁵/₈ inches)
Categories: Oriental and Asian Art