An Art Nouveau House in India

Kanoria in his drawing room

Nothing can prepare you for industrialist Sanjaya Kanoria's remarkable house. Entering the house through its carved ten feet high doors is to be transported into another world; one dominated by fantastic Art Nouveau décor. Every inch of the walls and ceilings are covered with wood carvings; furniture, doors, windows, recesses, mouldings, panelling have all been fashioned after quintessential Art Nouveau designs. The enormous house, which took almost a decade to complete, contains in its three stories a veritable museum of designs in wood.

The house is quite unlike anything I have encountered in India. It is a remarkable piece of architecture, a masterpiece of interior design and one that must be recorded for posterity.

The BBC describes Art Nouveau as the "first 20th century modern style. It was the first style to stop looking backwards in history for ideas, taking inspiration instead from what it saw around it, in particular the natural world." The style is characterised by "sinuous, elongated, curvy lines, stylised flowers, leaves, roots, buds and seedpods, the female form - in a pre-Raphaelite pose with long, flowing hair" and "exotic woods, marquetry, iridescent glass, silver and semi-precious stones".

One city that was most influenced by the Art Nouveau movement was Barcelona in Spain. This city saw the spawning of a distinct Art Nouveau style in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century thanks to rich sponsors and a number of gifted artists and architects. Among the more renowned names was Antoni Gaudi who is considered to the greatest exponent of the Catalan Art Nouveau movement. This was where Kanoria was first smitten by the wondrous curves of Art Nouveau architecture. From then on, there could be no looking back.

Excerpts from a conversation with him:

Question: How did you conceive your house?
Answer:   I first began to appreciate architecture as a visitor to New York from Boston where I studied.  I had seen but eighteen summers and was impressed by the tall skyscrapers with their fantastic steel and glass facades.  Upon my return to India I spent a lot of time in Delhi and liked the "Lutyens" architecture.  I thought it absolutely fantastic and I loved it and I designed on similar lines the facade of my factory in Bhilwara which still exists.  Such was the lack of appreciation of architecture on the part of the technical people that immediately after my facade was finished they put up a huge cement silo right in front of it.  This showed me how careful you have to be while doing a façade  -   it is more difficult than the interiors.  Then I happened to go to Jaipur and I stayed at the Rambagh Palace and was duly impressed. That was the beginning of my love for the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. But what really started off my passion for Art Nouveau was a visit to Barcelona in 1986 - I was at an age when all kinds of romantic ideas filled my mind and I wanted to do everything in the nature of solitude, wild places, beauty, poetry, beautiful girls and so on.

I was never interested in making a lot of money.  Who doesn't like money but it was not a ruling passion.  My ruling passion was, and still is today 30 years on, art.  10 days in Barcelona were an eye-opener and I took lots of photographs of buildings and I decided then that if ever I should make a house for myself it would be thus.

The Hallway
Upon returning to India I showed the photographs to a few friends and told them what I intended. Their only reaction was "you better begin fast !" So that was the introduction to and the beginning of a lifelong passion. After that I started collecting books on architecture; whenever I found a book on furniture or art deco or Art Nouveau I would buy it and today I am the proud possessor of more than 1500 books on art, architectural interiors and furniture. 

Then I started working on my house - I bought the plot in 1994 and in 1999 demolished the house and started working on the new house - the perfect house that I always wanted and I wanted it to be the house as a work of art.  I didn't want it to be functional and after having moved in 2007 I've realised that it's not a terribly comfortable house but every time I look up or open my eyes I'm rewarded by beauty in every sense of the term.  I have tried to be faithful to the Art Nouveau style and I believe I succeeded - I think it's the only Art Nouveau house in all of India.  Most people don't even know what it stands for.  Today in fact most people are not interested in architecture.

They don't know what the different styles are.  I also developed an abiding hatred for modern art and architecture - I find it soulless without character.  People create modern art and even modern architecture in half an hour and they can design a whole house in a day. My cousin moved into her house in nine months after beginning work: straight simple lines, yellow walls, red ceilings - it is easy to do.  It took me eight years to build my house - my architect prepared more than 2000 full-scale drawings.

At the end of the project my architect remarked that one client like me was enough to last him a lifetime.  His name was Anil Bhatia - the most temperamental character - times without number he stormed out of meetings with me.  But I would say that he was a genius and so I allowed him license.

Louis Majorelle is the master who has inspired the designs. Many of the works in my house, especially the beds for example and the facade are inspired by Majorelle's house in Nancy in France.

The Library


Question: To what extent did the architect look into the detailing?
Answer: The architect did the entire detailing and prepared the scale drawings for each element and there are also other drawings which show the depth and size of each element and where it was to be fixed.  It was an enormous amount of work on the part of the architect.  I would like to claim 5 per cent of the credit for doing the house. But he did everything though yes I provided the inspiration and the driving force.  We discussed each drawing and made modifications.

Question: What was the kind of materials used for the interiors?
Answer: It was mostly teak from Burma and the centre provinces. We also used veneers of different shades, colours and designs, some of them very expensive.  Where you don't have veneer you have teakwood with different shades of polish.  Most of the house is teak which is more resistant to termite.

Question: Where did you find the workmen and how was their workmanship?
Answer: Initially I had contactors but I found that the workmanship was shoddy and the contractor was more interested in a fast buck and not in quality.  Also surprisingly they didn't seem to want to finish the work although if they finished earlier their profit margins would have doubled - but they just went on and on.  Most of the contactors would engage a lady manager who would come to supervisor the working but they had very poor planning and just didn't get on with the job.  Ultimately I had to dismiss all the contactors and brought in labour on a daily rate basis and they did a far better job. In places one can see the imprint of the daily wagers: their output was tremendous and workmanship superior. If I were ever to do such a project again I would never engage a contractor - I would engage daily wagers and supervise them directly.

Question: Where did you get the daily wagers from?
Answer: There is an abundance of labour in Delhi and you can easily get as many as you like to work for you once you establish contact and are prepared to pay their wages.  At one time I had more than 200 people working in my house. There are Labour markets in Delhi.  Once you have a head-man in place he will organise everything.  They didn't seem to mind working long hours and also worked on a piece rate basis so that if they even if took longer to work they were paid the same.

Question: How did you ensure the quality of the work?
Answer: My architect would come twice a week and see the quality of the work. Times without number he would not accept it and the whole thing would have to be redone until it met his exacting standards.  Once the first item was completed and approved then we would work on the others in the same way.  I give a lot of credit to my architect for not only designing but also ensuring the quality.

Distinctive Art Nouveau lines on the ceiling carvings

Question: How did you do the ceilings of the drawing room?
Answer:  The conceptual design - the layout of the rooms - came first.  The detailing began once the lay-out design was approved.  The architect proceeded to make detailed and full scale drawings for each element in tracing paper which was pasted on the block of wood after which the carving began.

I would pour over the design books sometimes at night sometimes in the office (when I should've been working) and select a few designs to discuss with my architect.  Colour copies were given to the architect who would typically misplace them and then I'd have to send them again - I was very good at record-keeping - I still am.  I think in my previous life I must have been a librarian.  I still have every single one of the drawings which was used to produce the house.

Each element was carved separately and after the architect approved it was hammered into place on the ceiling or wherever. After the nail is driven in the cavity is filled in by wood powder mixed with glue so that remains in place.  Once polished you cannot spot the place where the nail was.  All the pieces are held in place by a vast multitude of nails.

Carved Cabinet Top

Question: How have people reacted to your house?
Answer: My father was very upset about the time it has taking to build the house - he was upset by the delays on part of the architects and almost every person who was involved. Every conceivable kind of delay took place and my father very eloquently said that he didn't want to live in a museum.  However I was determined to make the house of my dreams and I did it for myself and not for anybody else.  As I said I do like it when people come and say that it's a beautiful house but it was not built to impress anybody.  Most visitors can be broadly divided into two categories. Those who know nothing about architecture but like the general feel of the place say that house is like a Kashmiri house-boat (though nothing could be further from the truth).  There are others who know a thing or two about architecture who say that it is period architecture.  I find both groups insufferable but so far have had five visitors who knew what is Art Nouveau and one teen-aged American lass who exclaimed, "MUCHA !" upon spotting the master upon the walls.


Indranil Banerjie
15 February 2014

Comments

  1. Hi Indranil,

    Hello from a beginner from Bangalore.

    Another excellent post. Where is this house, BTW ?

    I have been silently reading your posts for the past few days. I picked up an interest in woodworking recently
    . Google landed me in this wonderful collection of posts.

    I find the articles here enjoyable to read and extremely informative too. Maybe they will just help me steer away somewhat from the power tool bug!

    -- Shree

    ReplyDelete
  2. Shree: The House is in New Delhi at a place called Niti Bagh. Thanks and best wishes.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That was a very nice write up Indranil. Hope to see the house sometime!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great interview and what a home!..As a realist in art, I am a staunch follower of Victorian , French and Indo-saracenic architechture. As its rightly pointed out in the article, anybody can do a modern art, without any basic knowledge in drawing, and its simple equivalent in wood working is the mass produced furnitures! Great to see that some are continuing the older traditional architecture and wood working!Let us continue the tradition!!

    ReplyDelete

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