EVERY other day there is a news item of Chandigarh’s heritage furniture going under the hammer at some prestigious auction house based at London, Paris, New York or some other global metropolis. The local vigilantes and activists do get aghast at the ‘blatant robbery’ of the city’s heritage treasures being siphoned off to distant shores, but remain helpless spectators. Placed on the high table of design, these have now become precious collector’s items adorning elite apartments globally.
For the citizens of Chandigarh, it’s a matter of amazement and wonder that these seemingly simple wooden furniture items that not too long ago were of everyday use are fetching mind-boggling high prices. These are not any royal antiques or historic artefacts, then why the international splurge and craze?
In fact, till just a few decades ago, these were very much in use in numerous government offices and institutions like Panjab University, the PGI, PEC, Chandigarh College of Architecture (CCA) and various other educational institutions — and, of course, in the edifices of the Capitol Complex: the Assembly, Secretariat and the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
I vividly recall that as a young faculty member at CCA in the late 1980s, my small cubicle had a V-legged chair and a table made from the then commonly available hardy teak or shisham (Indian rosewood) polished in natural finish. In fact, these were visible everywhere in the institution, whether the principal’s office, the clerk’s table and chair, and most prominently in the college library. Quite innocuously, even the chowkidar at the gate sat on one of those small ‘heritage’ cane chairs.
The seemingly ordinary chairs became a luxury brand overnight, with art dealers making a beeline to the city for foraging as many as they could lay their hands on.
At that time, the homes of only a few veteran architects who were part of the Chandigarh team that worked with Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret proudly displayed the chairs in their austere middle-class homes. One home where they had the pride of place was that of Eulie Chowdhury, a former senior Indian associate of Corbusier who along with Jeanneret was in charge of designing mass-scale furniture for the new city buildings that were coming up rapidly in the early years. Her living room had a low-cost floor lamp and bamboo cord chairs.
Architects of ‘total design’
It is not unusual for architects to appropriate furnishings to harmonise with the new architectural idioms they create. In fact, Edwin Lutyens, the architect-planner of colonial New Delhi, too, designed appropriate chairs, tables, cupboards and other furniture items for the Viceroy’s House (now Rashtrapati Bhawan), discarding the previous designs.
Most art movements of the early 20th century not only impacted architecture and decorative arts, but furnishings too. The spirit of ‘total art’ or ‘a work of art that makes use of all or many art forms’, called Gesamtkunstwerk in German, pervaded design ethos of the West at that time. This was manifest in the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. Furniture, interior-design furnishings and luxury items for display were moulded collectively in the same aesthetics as the architecture housing them.
Even Corbusier’s modernist contemporaries like Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed their own hallmark chairs. While Wright designed high-back dining chairs for his sleek modernist 1928 Robie House at Chicago along with stained glass windows, grills and light fixtures, Mies — famous for his “less is more” quote — designed the iconic Barcelona chair for the Pavilion there. Both Corbusier and Jeanneret during their early days of practice at Paris had partnered with the glamorous furniture designer Charlotte Perriand for their furniture line made from tubular steel.
Soon after arriving for their Chandigarh project, Jeanneret began to dabble in low-cost furniture inspired by everyday items used by the villagers, made with local materials like bamboo cord and string. These were, however, for limited personal use for a select few architect colleagues. But the idea sank in that it was imperative to create a new aesthetic for furnishing the simple, austere functional architecture they were ushering in. “The modernity, purity and consistency of the whole had to be perceptible,” writes Galerie Patrick Seguin.
While Jeanneret did the bulk of the designs for most buildings, he collaborated with Corbusier for the ones the latter was personally designing such as the High Court, Assembly and the Secretariat. The furniture was made from locally available materials like teak, shisham, cane, cushioned with sturdy cotton fabrics. At times, they were upholstered with leather, too, but always from the hide of dead cattle so as ‘not to offend the Hindu sentiments’.
Furniture for administrative buildings and educational institutions was designed differently. There were special high-back chairs for the judges. Specially designed tables with reading lights and displaying periodicals/news stands were created for the PU library and other teaching institutions. For the schools of art and architecture, the furniture included drafting tables, stools to sit on and even tables for sculpture work. The light-weight armchairs with their inverted V-shaped legs and X-shaped crossed legs became very famous. Both the backrest and the seat were woven with cane for air circulation in the hot summers.
Upholstered chairs were designed for more formal purposes such as using in offices of senior bureaucracy, Secretariat, Assembly buildings and the High Court. As Le Corbusier had used the bold primary colours for the interiors of the hyperboloid-shaped Assembly roof, the chairs and benches in the High Court building were also upholstered in green, yellow and brownish-red colours of padded leather. With the passage of time and resultant wear and tear, the original leather upholstery, however, had to be refurbished in faux or synthetic leather. The demand for furniture coming up was so high that numerous workshops had to be set up not only at Chandigarh, but also at Delhi and Patiala.
Old furniture fades away
While for the first few years the excitement and commitment to the new aesthetics of Corbusier prevailed, gradually new materials and desire for more glossy, ornamental and ostentatious furniture set in. Also, the original wooden furniture needed frequent repairs due to wear and tear.
Not surprisingly, a lot of original furniture started getting junked, to be replaced by new factory-made, branded, office steel tables and chairs. It became fashionable to replace old dull sarkari table-kursis with shiny new furniture. No one realised the artistic worth of the highly evolved functional, beautiful yet natural wood furniture then. There were even tables carved out from slices of hardwood tree trunks complete with their rings visible, resting on steel tripods for support, the likes of which would now would fetch millions of dollars.
Rebirth at auctions
An international architectural conference held in the late 1990s put the global spotlight on the city. Perhaps, a few opportunistic dealers of luxury brands also got alerted. They started buying and carting away large consignments of ‘broken furniture’ to the art capitals of the world and auctioning these at astronomically high prices.
The frequent auctions spurred the heritage advocates to raise a red flag about the ‘city’s priceless heritage getting stolen’, but in the absence of any concrete heritage laws, not much effective action has been possible. Adding to the number of existing originals, the modern-day replicas are only complicating the matter further, raising issues of authenticity.
One suggestion is to create a Heritage Furniture Museum in the city. With the Old Press Building — a heritage edifice in its own right — getting vacated, it can be put to an adaptive reuse for the proposed museum. A Chandigarh Heritage Trust should be set up to decide on the display of the select number of furniture items and the rest auctioned off, fetching best global prices. The funds could be ploughed back to spread heritage awareness about the city.