Traditional Bengal Furniture: Interview with Adrian Basu


Ralph (left) and Adrian Basu
Adrian Basu is a collector and antique furniture restorer based in Calcutta. At an early age he became interested in art, antiques and period furniture. As a Eurasian (his mother being Austrian and late father Indian), he was privileged in inheriting art and antique traditions from both cultures. His association with art and antiques led him to restore furniture. Thereafter, he and his brother Ralph acquired an interest in collecting fine furniture and art. It was while restoring antique furniture that he became interested in woodworking and reproduction furniture, as well as in the history of furniture.

We asked him a little bit about traditional Calcutta furniture and its roots in the British Raj:

Q1. What kind of wooden furniture and objects did Bengal produce before the British came along? Also, is there any information about the kinds of tool Bengal woodworkers used in those times?

A1. This is a question that's very difficult to answer as it is not very well documented. But during the Mogul rule Mogul furniture was in vogue in the homes of Nawabs. Similarly Hindu Rajas also had furniture. Both the Nawabs and Rajas used a lot of marble for their furniture besides wood. Marble was considered durable and cool for the hot Indian summers.

Q2. What were the essential pieces of furniture required by a typical Englishmen in the 18th century when Calcutta grew into a big city? Were these imported from Britain or made locally?

A2. During the early part of British rule I would think Britishers would have to make do with very little furniture, probably just a bed. But I can imagine that it didn't take long for entrepreneurs with the help of our excellent craftsmen to come up with indigenously made furniture catering to British tastes.

Calcutta was the seat of British power and had many wealthy individuals who commissioned fine furntiure.
For the typical Englishman it was essential to have:

In the corridor a hat and coat rack or stand. Sometimes a three-in-one hat, coat and walking cane/umbrella stand outfitted with a built in mirror.

The lounge consisting of a sofa set or sets depending on the size of the room, centre and side tables, nest of tables, settee, occasional chairs, corner and side whatnots, probably a cabinet and/or glass vitrine (showcase).

The veranda usually consisted of a cane or wrought-iron seating arraignment suitable for having afternoon tea along with probably some wrought-iron accessories like wall brackets, stand lamps, etc.

Many Englishmen would also have a bar counter along with bar stools.

Scene from Passage to India: Note the dark heavy furniture

The dining room would consist of a dining table, sometimes telescopic or with add-on end tables to enlarge the size for banquets. The add-on tables when not in use would be placed as side tables at the ends of the room with the extra chairs placed on either sides of it. It was essential to have a sideboard and/or dresser for keeping ones china and cutlery in. Dressers were often considered provincial and would sometimes be kept away in the pantry. At times there was also a glass cabinet to store one's silver and glass ware.

Should they have had a study, it would have been outfitted with a twin or single secretariat table and/or a roll-top writing table, bookcases / shelves, etc. There would quite often also be a settee and reading chairs for the purpose of sitting, reading and entertaining.

The bedrooms would consist of beds, either a king or queen size double bed or a pair of single beds with probably side tables, wardrobes, a dressing table and occasional chairs, etc.
An ornately carved four poster bed made in India in the 19th century. The dark finish and carvings were typical of furniture of that period. (photo source: www.fourposterbeds.uk.com)
Most of this furniture would have been made in India however some pieces could have been imported. Furniture for full households was only imported by the very rich. However in addition to the little furniture that was imported, there were Belgian mirrors in gilded framed, chandeliers along with statues and statuettes made of marble, bronze and antimony, lamps, clocks, brick-a-brac, etc imported in much larger quantities.

Q3. Why is traditional Calcutta furniture almost invariably finished with a black patina or ebonised? Doesn't this hide the good wood they used? Also what is this finish exactly - is it Shellac, varnish or lacquer?

A3. The dark ebonised finish on furniture of that period was done by French polish (shellac & spirit). The dark colour would indeed have hidden natural grains of the wood, but this dark polish was probably adopted from Victorian furniture. A dark colour was also considered easy to maintain at the time. Quite often subsequent polishing was done by varnish or lacquer and it was very often done without removing the original French polish.

Q4. What were the kinds of wood preferred traditionally by European and upper class Indian households and where did they come from? What were their characteristics that made them so coveted?

A4. Burma Teak was most preferred. However delicately carved pieces were also made from Indian mahogany and rosewood. Mahogany is considered to be the best wood for carving.

Q5. What are the design features that are unique to traditional Calcutta furniture? How would one distinguish such pieces? What kind of hardware is used and of what material?

A5. There's nothing unique to traditional Calcutta furniture other than Chisel & Turning work called Batali. Batali is the Bengali word for carving which Bengali craftsmen excelled in. Since carpenters from Bengal were considered to be good in Batali, they were sought after and had made their way to many other parts of India, often only to return home from being homesick.

Q6. What remains of this traditional craft in Calcutta and other parts of Bengal? Are there skilled artisans who still make examples of such furniture?

A6. There are still some carpenters who can make/reproduce Batali furniture of that era. Unfortunately it is a dying art/profession due to reasons listed below:

a. The furniture is usually bulky

b. It is expensive since wood is expensive,

c. It is extremely time taking to make, and

d. Unfortunately it is not at all very much in vogue now.

To end this I would like to add that there was a very wealthy Jewish, Armenian and Parsee community in Calcutta whose members were often patrons of art and decor. The wealthiest of these communities were engaged in the commerce and industry of the city and they would by far have had the best collections of art and furniture. The community dwindled soon after Independence emigrating to the UK / US, often taking much of their collections with them.

Indranil Banerjie
28 October 2013
[ends]

Comments

  1. Good information. Lucky me I ran across your site by accident (stumbleupon).
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    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous23 May, 2015

    Hi Sir ,

    I stay in Allahabad . I am teaching at the University .

    Was looking for a good old "Palonko" like the one you have in your site .

    Can you please help by suggesting where I can buy one and at about what price ?

    Thanks
    Prof Ruma Purkait
    email : ssp3007@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Such beds can be made to order in Calcutta - don't know about Allahabad.

      Delete
  3. Where in Kolkotta can the furniture be ordered ?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You could contact Adrian Basu at 9831026566

      Delete
  4. Mr basu I would soon be contacting you

    ReplyDelete

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