Inlaying shiny metal pieces into black zinc vessels to form decorative patterns is an artistic technique that is unique to India. In fact, the knowledge and use of zinc as an independent metal flourished in India long before the process of its distillation was known in the West. Bidri ware, as these inlaid zinc vessels are called, derives its name from a town, Bidar, in the Deccan where this type of vessel is believed to have been invented, probably sometime in the 17th century. However, production was not limited to Bidar as is commonly believed, but occurred in a number of major cities throughout the Deccan and north India.
This hookah base represents one of the most common forms of Bidri ware. Used to smoke tobacco through a process of indirect heat and water filtration, the hookah was an acceptable part of everyday practice for elite men and women. Tobacco was introduced to India probably sometime in the 16th century by the Portuguese and came to north India in the very early 17th century. The custom of smoking a hookah caught on very quickly, and it was a common and fashionable subject in portraiture [1996.68]. Attached to the base some distance away is a long pipe through which the smoke would pass, attached to a pipelike mouthpiece. Her servant seated off to the side would have been skilled in refilling the hookah with water and tobacco, a cumbersome procedure.
Catherine Asher, "Hookah base," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 120.