Memsahib brings the exotic into her parlour

Furniture from British India and Ceylon
May 4, 2001

Growing up on a tea plantation in Old Ceylon, even as late as the middle of the 20th century, I remember that virtually all our western-style furniture was hand-made by local craftsmen. It was simply more practical to commission it from them rather than to buy it from the shops in the capital Colombo. As the British realised immediately when they took over Ceylon at the beginning of the 19th century, "Cinglese are ingenious and expert artificers and display particular dexterity in gold, silver and carpenters' work".

The fascination of "Anglo-Indian" furniture - that is furniture made in colonial India for both British and Indian use - lies in its peculiar hybrid nature. The chairs and tables of the colonial period provide a carved, decorated and inlaid guide to the conference of two very distinct cultures. Ironically, precisely because of the subject's indeterminate position, very little has been written about it: western in structure and use, the objects have been overlooked by scholars of Indian art; Indian in execution, they have been largely ignored by western art historians. Amin Jaffer's new book sets out to repair this omission. It is both a catalogue with detailed commentaries on the Anglo-Indian collections (including a brief but interesting section on Ceylon) in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and in the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and an introduction to the history of colonial furniture with a substantial analysis of the contextual issues arising.

Jaffer begins from a point that, once understood, seems obvious, although it would not necessarily occur to one immediately. He observes: "Furniture in the western sense did not traditionally exist in Indian interiors, in which people ate, read and socialised cross-legged on the ground. The Portuguese, and later the Dutch, British and French, filled this need in various ways, but above all by commissioning western-style furniture from native carpenters." It is the sophisticated commissioned pieces, made from precious materials in specialist areas of craftmanship, that are so appealing to collectors today because they combine a familiar form with exotic materials and decoration.

For the lay reader, the strength of the book is its willingness to engage in such social history as well as the scholarly rigours of cataloguing the two finest collections of Anglo-Indian furniture in the world. This imbues the catalogue with interest beyond the aesthetic appreciation of the items. Jaffer's four essays deal in turn with "Life in early British India", "Furnishings in the domestic interior", "The availability and acquisition of furniture" and "The Indian consumption of western furniture and decorative articles". Even by simply listing the essay titles, it becomes apparent that the book's history of furniture in the 18th and early 19th century provides a history of the relations between the two cultures. Jaffer draws our attention to the hybrid nature of Anglo-Indian furniture early on, and his essays are as much an investigation of that uneasily hyphenated epithet as they are of the furniture itself.

He notes a Mrs Kindersley's remarks on the difficulties of acquiring furniture in Calcutta in the 1760s: "Furniture is exorbitantly dear and so difficult to procure, that one seldom sees a room where all the chairs and couches are of one sort; people of the first consequence are forced to pick them up as they can, either from the captains of European ships, or from China, or having some made by blundering carpenters of the country, or send for them to Bombay, where they are generally received about three years after they are bespoke." Jaffer also introduces titbits of domestic information about the obstacles to comfortable living for the westerner in India; bedposts, for instance, were routinely placed in bowls of water to prevent the devouring ants from destroying them. All this helps the reader to visualise the furniture in use, in actual interiors, rather than as part of museum displays.

Blundering or not, local artisans were renowned from the start among the British for their remarkable skill as mimics. Inevitably unfamiliar with western styles, and with no common point of cultural reference, Indian carpenters produced items that almost exactly resembled the external appearance of their western counterparts while paying little attention to the pieces' structure or function. But as the British settlement flourished, Indian craftsmen developed a better sense of their employers' taste, and by the 19th century they were rivalling European standards of craftsmanship.

Of course, furniture was imported too, and the flow increased during the 19th century as the desirability of all things European became pre-eminent and Indian goods and customs - such as the use of a hookah, watching nautches (Indian dances) and travelling by palanquin, which had once been the height of fashion - were disdained. Sadly, as Jaffer says: "The stigma accorded non-European goods in the colonial market-place echoed the overall policy of discrimination, and this increased as the century progressed."

Thanks to the high mortality rate and the impermanent nature of settlement, colonial India had a thriving second-hand trade. Many articles could tell a tale of the many owners whose hands they had passed through. Towards the end of the 19th century, Edward Braddon noticed: "Every Anglo-Indian habitation assumes in some degree the character of a second-hand furniture warehouse or curiosity shop. There is a history attached to nearly every piece of property... chairs, tables, whatnot etc, all are souvenirs of people who have come and gone."

In his final essay, Jaffer looks from the opposite angle at the British-Indian furniture phenomenon, and considers the Indian consumption of western style. European goods had an impact on Indian courts as early as the late 16th century, but this was largely for their novelty value. Mirrors were highly prized, being more effective than existing polished-metal mirrors, and many Indian courts cultivated an appreciation of European art. Lighting ideas were adopted too, and clocks were often presented to Indian rulers. Jaffer observes that such time-pieces were "entirely useless to a people who divided the day into sixty units of roughly twenty-four minutes", but they were admired for their chimes and appreciated as much as curiosities as for any purpose.

Chairs, having no practical use in the Indian interior, where life was conducted at floor level, developed into status symbols. Originally, Indians kept them out of courtesy to Europeans, but it became obvious that "a foreigner seated on a chair above Indians of equal or higher rank seated on the floor created an understandably uneasy situation with pecking order flouted by the use of an object whose significance as a status indicator crossed cultural boundaries". Some rajas tackled the problem by seating themselves on thrones, which could be occupied either in the western manner or with one's feet tucked under, and which were one or two feet higher than any other chair. Jaffer explores the symbolic decoration and embellishment of these often-exquisite thrones.

The organisation of Jaffer's essays invites the reader to make a comparison between the British and the Indian management of the influence upon themselves of the other culture. It is a comparison that favours the Indians. As against a predominant "West is best" attitude of superiority among the British, the Indians successfully lived with the western items they adopted without either abandoning or over-asserting their own lifestyle through their furniture. As Jaffer points out: "However eagerly Indians took on the trappings of a European lifestyle, their actual westernisation was most often superficial... sitting on a chair or eating off a table constituted an alternative type of behaviour, engaged in as desired or needed in a defined Europeanised atmosphere, and existing side by side with, not replacing, traditional ways of sitting or eating."

The introductory essays are indispensable to the reader as one peruses the catalogue, because they enable one to imagine the life of the pieces: being commissioned, used, bought and sold, intimately connected with the lives of the people who sailed to India to make their fortunes. Jaffer divides the objects by region, which reveals how much styles varied between the different centres of craftsmanship. He highlights some of the difficulties facing the cataloguer, such as the fact that a piece may have been made in India but by skilled Europeans from fashionable imported timber, which makes it difficult to classify as definitively Anglo-Indian, while the presence of Chinese craftsmen in colonial India making oriental objects creates further problems of differentiation. However, Jaffer's descriptions are as rich and detailed as anyone could wish.

The Victoria and Albert Museum's collection is unparalleled in range, size and importance, although it is heavily weighted towards ceremonial objects and furniture made for an elite market. The Peabody Essex Museum's collection dovetails perfectly, offering less valuable but equally culturally important items such as reed stools (the ubiquitous morha ) and planters' chairs (with elongated arms for resting the legs on), while also filling some of the gaps in the V & A's holdings. Thus Jaffer's book complements these already complementary collections perfectly, giving us not only intricate and immaculately researched catalogue commentaries but also the necessary historical and cultural background to Anglo-Indian furniture previously overlooked by historians of both cultures.

Christopher Ondaatje is a writer and collector of rare works from Old Ceylon.

Furniture from British India and Ceylon

Author - Amin Jaffer
ISBN - 1 85177 318 5
Publisher - V & A Publications
Price - £75.00
Pages - 416

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