Indian craftsmanship has always enjoyed a fame that has invited both respect and pillage from the earliest days. Whether it is stone work on temples or standalone articles, terracotta figurines, jewelry pieces, woodwork or graphic and plastic art, the craftsmen from this country have always been welcomed by connoisseurs of beauty. At times, however, this fixation with beauty sacrificed utility and comfort – this tendency resulted in ornate and complicated creations like a wooden throne, for example, that would have raised the goose-bumps, but would also have given a nasty backache. Local tradition and culture contributed to the furthest development of ornamental woodwork – for palaces, temples, public houses, works of arts, etc – but did not generate any utilitarian furniture of the kind we modern dwellers of the world are used to. One big reason for this was that eating was mainly done on floor, and sitting and resting on charpoys (simple string bed with wooden posts). The main thrust to furniture development was given by foreign influence.
When the Portuguese, the first Europeans to come to India, arrived, they did not find any familiar furniture, it was them, and later, the Dutch, the French and the English, who inspired the composition of domestic furniture to cater to their settlements. The Indian carpenter turned out to be precocious in adapting foreign designs and inducing in them an indigenous flavor of craftsmanship. Thus, as Joseph Butler mentions in an article in Encyclopedia Britannica, “India’s place in the history of furniture is that of an adapter or transformer of imported Western styles rather than a creator of independent styles of its own.” It was the play of these influences that gave birth to the Mughal style, the Goanese, the Indo-Dutch style, the use of ebony and ivory in the manner of Chippendale and Sheraton.
English predominance since the 18th century resulted in English influence in furniture styling, and this became so popular that even Indian rulers became patrons (this latter tendency could simply be a reflection of the Anglicization of the rulers, of their desire to identify with the ruling class). In the 19th century, the ornamentation assumed primacy, divorcing itself once again from utility.
A tropical country with about eighty varieties of hardwood available for woodwork, India has an old tradition of furniture making. Subsequent to the English influence who cultivated teak as a ‘royal tree’ for shipping industry (teak is tremendously resilient to water and weather), teak assumed tremendous popularity for quality woodwork. Almost all large articles were composed on wood. Royal houses and rich households have always been the traditional patrons of the furniture industry, and even today the royal palaces strewn across the four corners of India feature some of the most illustrious examples of indigenous woodwork. Frederick Litchfield’s Illustrated History of Furniture (1893) mentions many such marvels that still mesmerize. Like the two wooden teak doors sent as gift to the Indian Government and now kept in the National Museum (Kolkata). Or the shisham wood (rosewood) carved window at Amritsar with its overhanging cornice, ornamental arches with pillars and intricate work on the body. Royal gifts sent to the Queen and the King as well as the Princes also showed an obsession with details that is unique to India. Even today, much of British royal furniture is of Indian vintage.
In the years since the British left the furniture industry in India has evolved. Utility and simplicity gained primacy over art. Price considerations have driven down ornamentation to the minimum, and cheaper wood varieties have come to be used to cater to the huge low cost demand. Yet, in niche areas the old forms of furniture still continue to be crafted. In many places, like Rajasthan, that still has a royal ethos in a Republican India, with its dozens of Palaces’, the old form of furniture making is still preserved. Here, one can take a time travel and find works of an earlier day being crafted with the same expertise. Exported around the world wherever antique and ornamental furniture is appreciated, the Jodhpur furniture forms the focal point of this industry. Nowadays foreign designs are adapted with local styles that are hugely popular with Western customers. Once again we are back to the Portuguese days when designs were an inventive amalgamation of European sensibilities and Indian craftsmanship.