Sarita Sundar’s lavishly illustrated new book From The Frugal To The Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India traces the cultural evolution of the ‘seat’ and the many chairs it spawned over the centuries
In his 2016 book, Now I Sit Me Down, the architect Witold Rybczynski writes: “The way we choose to sit, and what we choose to sit on, says a lot about us: our values, our tastes, the things we hold dear.”
The history of seats and chairs is a social history rather than an evolutionary one. Popular wisdom is that chairs are a European creation that was brought to India by colonisers. This is largely on account of the fact that much of innovations in chair design in the last century including Verner Panton’s Stacking Chair (1960), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona (1929), Le Corbusier’s Grand Confort (1928), Arne Jacobsen’s Egg (1958) and Charles & Ray Eames’ Lounge & Ottoman and LCW (1956 & 1946), all came from Europe and America.
Surprisingly though, India has had a rich history of chair design that goes back hundreds of years. It is just that this history had not been comprehensively documented so far. Sarita Sundar, the Bengaluru-based graphic artist, researcher, designer and founder of design and heritage consultancy, Hanno, has sought to fill the void with her recently released From the Frugal to the Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India . The lavishly illustrated book, which traces the cultural evolution of the seat in the country and is published in association with Godrej Archives, is the kind of tome that should ideally be read seated on a grandly upholstered wing chair, with your feet up on an ottoman. It deals with a sprawling topic that encompasses everything from humble vernacular, and ceremonial, seats, and grand thrones to colonial icons such as the Roorkhee Chair and furniture made from tubular steel by the likes of Godrej & Boyce that lined office halls in the last century. Sundar uses art historian Jean-Francois Chevrier’s maxim, ‘Every object is a thing, while not everything is an object’ as a starting point for the research that went into the book. “My interest is really to look at ordinary objects and sort of unearth curiosities. And seats or chairs is one of them,” says Sundar, a felicitous writer, equipped with the tenacity of a historian. A chair is, of course, much more than a curiosity. Seats have always signaled hierarchy, privilege, and power. “Elevation, be it by means of a raised platform, a throne, or even a simple chair or stool, establishes special status and authority,” writes Sundar. The Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s Takht-i-Taus or Jewelled Throne, which referenced King Solomon, was a magnificent example. “Its resplendence, its grandeur, and its elevation — lifting as it did the Emperor closer to heaven than earth — helped perpetuate the belief that he ruled by virtue of divine right,” writes Sundar. (Some 300 years later, Mahatma Gandhi would subvert this dynamic by making his European visitors sit on the floor alongside him.)
While India’s colonisers, especially the British, who were as driven by commerce as by their mission to civilise the savages, didn’t think much of the floor-sitting culture prevalent in India, the colonial period produced some memorable — and timeless — chairs. Most of us would be familiar with the Planter’s Chair and the Roorkhee Chair, or at least with their replicas, but Sundar’s book also introduces to the lay reader, such as this writer, to the rare and distinctive six-or-eight-legged Burgomaster, named after the Dutch burgemeester or head of a town. Once found in the East Indies, South India, and Sri Lanka, the chair, writes Sundar, “possibly derived from hexagonal or circular thrones of the period, but has also been attributed to a barber’s chair”. There’s one at the Asiatic Society in Mumbai, she tells me, and one of these days I plan to head there and check it out. Until the first decades of the last century, chairs were uncommon in most households in Indian cities, says Sundar, but things changed with the rise of tubular steel and its use in furniture design. “The early decades of the 20th century saw the arrival of Art Deco, and you also had this new, aspirational class who wanted chairs in their urban homes. That was when companies such as Godrej & Boyce came into the picture,” says Sundar. The company reimagined Hungarian-born designer and architect Marcel Breuer’s iconic Cesca chair, which, says Sundar, broke away from the idea of the four-legged chair.
The factories of companies such as Godrej & Boyce and Le Corbusier and his cousin and fellow architect Pierre Jeanneret’s Chandigarh project, which responded to the ambitions of a young and independent nation, represented, along with the National Institute of Design (NID), the three citadels of modernism in India. “All three came into existence around the same time in the mid-20th century in response to a call from the newly formed independent government in India to participate in fashioning a progressive secular Indian modernism,” writes Sundar.
Jeanneret, who was appointed Chief Architect of Chandigarh and designed several categories of government housing, is most known today for the furniture he created for Le Corbusier’s “ideal city”. Jeanneret’s desks, easy chairs, and library chairs, among others, which sold as scrap by the civic authorities, are now found in the homes of the wealthy and design-forward in several cities across the globe and fetch high prices at auctions. “The ‘Chandigarh chair’ and furniture were a fusion between the western sort of formal language Jeanneret epitomised and Indian architects and craftsmen. His proportions and angles were European, but the craftsmanship was Indian,” says Sundar.
The book brings into focus the influence of the NID and of men such as Gajanan Upadhyay, “the father of Indian furniture design”, and his role in introducing international modernist language to Indian furniture design. Sundar’s work also spotlights the likes of Bengaluru-based Sandeep Sangaru who, she says, is among the designers who are venturing out of the confines of Scandinavian aesthetic. “There is a sense that modernist design is the ultimate design, but a lot of designers in India, including Sangaru, are trying to break that mould.”
Lead image: Indo-Portuguese folding chair. Pic courtesy of The Past Perfect Collection, Singapore.





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