A tale of European craftsmanship and South Asian patronage

A tale of European craftsmanship and South Asian patronage: Lighting objects of the 19th Century India.

By Isha Priya Singh | @desidrapes

Fate has forced the courtesan Sahib Jaan to perform at the wedding of the man she loves.  Āj ham apnī duāoñ kā asar dekheñge / आज हम अपनी दुआओं का असर देखेंगे….(Today I shall test the strength of my prayers) sings the veiled beauty, just when her eyes fall upon the ornate Jhār̤/झाड़ (chandelier) suspended gracefully from the ceiling of the Baiṭhak/ बैठक (sitting area). Provoked by a stroke of passion, she breaks the Firozī-coloured Fānūs/ फ़ानूस (Turquoise-coloured pedestal lamp) placed on the floor.  As she begins to dance on the broken glass pieces, she leaves her blood-red footprints on the Cām̐danī/ चाँदनी (White sheets) as well as the minds of her onscreen and off-screen audience.

Pakeezah Movie Set Lightning

This is an iconic scene from the classic film Pakeezah (1972), starring the legendary actor Meena Kumari in the role of a Lakhnavī Tavāif/ तवाइफ़ (courtesan). The sets of period films showcasing the grandeur of Nawabi Lucknow, be it Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) or Umrao Jaan(1981), were never complete without these ornate glass objects. Their presence was critical for an authentic portrayal of Awadh as these glass beauties had become synonymous with Awadh’s sophisticated decor. 

Awadh was brutally vandalized in the years 1856 and 1857, palaces were looted and destroyed. Barely any artefacts from the glorious days survive today but the Husainābād or Choṭā Imāmbār̤ā in Lucknow still has a hall full of magnificent chandeliers and pedestal lamps. The tourist guides at the monument proudly proclaim that the chandeliers were all imported from Belgium and Germany. The later Nawabs of Awadh were heavily influenced by European aesthetics; it is evident in the Awadhi architecture. They also loved to use artefacts made in Europe to decorate the interiors of their built spaces, be it the palaces, assembly halls, places of worship, shrines, or even tombs.

chandeliers and lamps in Kotha

The performance spaces of the courtesans or the Koṭhās /कोठा relied heavily on chandeliers and lamps to lend them the much-desired opulence. During the Mushāirās/ मुशाइरा (Urdu poetry recitation gatherings), crystal lamps not just decorated the spaces but also served as the Shama-e-Mehfil/ शमा-ए-महफ़िल or the light of the gathering/event. This Shama/ शमा kept rotating in the circle of poets throughout the evening as it was placed in front of the performing poet.

A glass manufacturer from Belgium named Val Saint Lambert had started exporting these products to India in 1839. They had a distribution in Mumbai and Kolkata (then known as Bombay and Calcutta respectively).

Val Saint Lambert also made melon and bell-shaped lanterns for India. These objects were suspended by a metal collar connected to chains and had a glass smoke cap. A candle used to be placed inside them. They were made in clear as well as coloured glass in jewel colours like amber, emerald green, amethyst, and rubellite red. They are known in the antique trade as Anglo-Indian lanterns or Huṃḍī/ हुण्डी . An Austrian maker named Rudolf Ditmar is also known to have manufactured the Huṃḍīs for India. Replicas of these Huṃḍīs are still sold in the street markets of Jaipur, Delhi (Janpath), and Mumbai (Colaba). 

Jhūmars at the Salar Jung Museum.

Apart from the light objects Val Saint Lambert also supplied objects of everyday use like decanters, goblets, glasses, bowls, etc. to the Indian aristocracy. Some of these objects had engravings in the Persio-Arabic script. It is believed that these engravings were a work of the middle-men in Mumbai and Kolkata. Some of this glassware still bears the seals of these distributors. While creating these objects commissioned by the royalty, the manufacturers did keep the taste of the patrons in mind. 

Many princely states, other than Awadh, were patrons of glassware.  Gwalior, Udaipur, and Hyderabad were among them. The Faluknuma and Chowmahala Palaces in Hyderabad still have several English glass chandeliers and candelabra, as well as some examples of French and Bohemian glass.  Fortunately, the Jhūmars/झूमर(chandeliers) of Hyderabad are much better preserved than Fānūs and Jhār̤s of Lucknow.  Some of the Jhūmars are also on display at the Salar Jung Museum.

hūmars, Jhār̤s, Huṃḍīs with candles

The era of Nawabs, Nizams, and Rajahs may have gone by but many of the Jhūmars, Jhār̤s, Huṃḍīs, and Fānūs remain to retell the stories of those glorious days. Just a glance at these objects can transport one to the era when they were lit with candles and not electric bulbs. It is fascinating how they have survived for centuries despite being made of such a delicate material! It reminds one of a couplet by Urdu poet Nusrat Gwaliari.

Jalte bujhte hu.e fānūs haiñ manzar manzar
Naqsh-dar-naqsh vo miT kar bhī hai ayāñ kaisā

Approximate translation: Spectacular sights all around; Lamps flickering, remaining lit and extinguishing! That which doesn’t remain anymore still seems palpable in every frame, somehow.



  • Belgian Pressed Glass for India in the 19th Century by Jaap Otte
  • The Eastern Connection by Jane Shadel Spillman, Curator of American Glass
  • Photographer Alain Schroeder’s research
  • org for the Urdu poetry. 
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