A few years ago, my son and I were vacationing in Trivandrum. I'd heard about the beauty of Kerala, its lush country side, its backwaters, its architecture. and of course, its wooden furniture. Traditional arts always get my attention, so off we went, a highly unlikely venue for a mother and son holiday.
As soon as we landed, we wanted to try out the local cuisine. What can I say, we're big foodies :) Tripadvisor to the rescue, and Villa Maya popped up as a must-visit. Since it was close by, we went for it. And my word, did I love it! Even before the food arrived, in fact even before I saw the menu, I was so glad we'd picked this place. The decor was right up my alley. Someone with a load of creativity and love for local craftsmanship and good, solid colonial furniture, had converted what seems to be a heritage home into a complete dining experience. And the food was fantastic, but I'm all about home decor, so I'll stay on point. Indian craftsmanship is so relevant, even in modern India where the trends swing to ultra modern every few years. The folks who oversaw the interiors of Villa Maya get this. They've used quality teak wood furniture, and given it a playful vibe with a floral upholstery. At the same time, there's a whole lot of antique brassware dotting coffee tables and focal points. The vibe resonated with me. I could easily draw parallels with our store in Pune where we have created a welcoming ambiance with gardens and walkways as part of the furniture shopping experience.
This isn't the first time I've seen colonial furniture used to create a high-end look-and-feel. Top notch furniture and interior stores in the east coast of the United States often retail antique colonial furniture. I love visiting these stores and always walk away inspired by their imagination. I'll look out for pictures of some of these stores I've visited, but till then, check out this article from HGTV that drives home this point, with beautiful illustrations.
I guess my point is this - colonial furniture, often hand-me-downs for so many of us, is versatile! It's up to us how we decide to use it. With a little imagination, we can create a truly unique space for ourselves and our loved ones.
Above- Connemera market in Trivandrum
If you've grown up in India, chances are you've been to the old bazaar in the heart of the old town. If you haven't visited one, let me paint you a picture. Every township has an old traditional bazaar in the heart of the old town, a market crammed with shops that house all kinds of wares, from the finest of jewelry and handlooms to the cheapest of plastic toys and footwear. The shops are usually very old, with beautifully aged wooden support beams peaking out here and there. These markets are a car driver's worst nightmare, with narrow roads catering to a much larger population than originally indented. There's often one or two really ancient temples, perhaps a mosque too, and lots of eateries and vendors on hand cart selling street food. And then there's the crowds. Lots and lots of them, on foot, on cycles, and on 2 -wheelers. To be sure, a trip to these bazaars brings on a sensory explosion of noise, colors and often, high heat. It is not for the faint hearted! But there is no other shopping experience quite like it, and the chaos is a small price to be for the experience.
Growing up, we travelled all across India. My father's a military man, and often got posted to really remote places. And my mother, who truly appreciates Indian handicrafts, would take me on explorations to the oldest bazaar there was in the new town we found ourselves in. These were such memorable explorations. We've bought antique utensils, silver and textiles that I still have in my possession, decades later. In 2016. while vacationing with my son in Trivandrum, I took him to the famous Connemara spice market, not because he has any interest in cooking, but because I wanted him to experience this city, amongst other things, through its specialty, its home grown spices. To his credit, he played along :)
So what is it about these bazaars that is so captivating? Without question, it is the uniqueness of its wares. The town's local artistry is- or used to be- the highlight of these bazaars, whether it's the traditional art of zardozi and ittar in Charminar, or hand painted Pichwais of Nathdwara. Artifacts were sold based on the skill of the artisans, the weavers and the craftsman. Sadly, with modernisation, the uniqueness of these bazaars is getting diluted. All bazaars everywhere keep pretty much the same wares. As demand for some of these ancient crafts dwindles, shop keepers have no choice but to stock items that are at the top of their customers' mind. Factory- made cookie cutter items, from clothes to fashion accessories to utensils, have flooded bazaars all over the country. In recent years, I'm saddened as I notice fewer shops carry traditional handicrafts of that region. Once these skills are lost, the loss is irreversible.
Of course modernisation is required, and brings with it a better life for these very craftsmen as they find better paying jobs. But there has to be an attempt to preserve the arts. And there are government and private sector organisations doing just this, training artisans to modify their products so they appeal to a more global, well-traveled, customer. We as citizens need to be aware of what we're losing, and aim to support artisans. I'd hate to see an India where every shopping experience is the same as any other shopping experience anywhere else in the world.
14 Traditional Bazaars of India
With the surge in branded wooden furniture, I thought it might be fun to talk about three common options available to people looking for furniture. The best option really depends on your sense of style and the duration you're looking to keep your furniture. Often, like with so many things in life, we start off with a more functional and affordable item, and upgrade at a later stage. I've certainly done that. Plus, sometimes all you want is a fun piece that adds a little pizzazz to your interiors. You know it won't last forever, but that's fine! So let's jump right in.
Solid wood: Furniture made of solid wood utilises timber. No plywood for inner joints, for drawer boards, or planks. Just solid beams of wood. The larger the furniture, like beds and cabinets, the larger the length of wood required, and so, the larger the tree that's felled. This is why solid wood furniture is expensive, and has an environmental cost.
Solid wood is of two types- hardwood, which like teak can be very dense and hence durable, and softwood like pine and fir. Both types have beautiful natural grains that add character to furniture. I consider seasoned teak wood the gold standard. It has a beautiful long, oval grain, a deep gold color, and its durability is outstanding. Of course that doesn't mean I wouldn't buy a trendy accent piece made out of mixed medium, like wood and iron, or sleeper wood.
It's important to note that not all solid wood is durable, nor is it necessarily appealing. Bhoora sheesham, a relative of rosewood, and mango, are actually poor materials for furniture because of their tendency to warp and their susceptibility to wood borers. Neither of them have an appealing grain or color, and need to be stained to hide the variations in color and the knots in the grain.
I'll do a follow up article on the different types of hardwood and softwoods, but for now, here's some more information on hardwoods.
Plywood: This is a manmade material made by gluing wood veneers together. It is extremely strong, but does need a finishing veneer as plywood itself has a rough finish that splinters. Plywood is a great option for sturdy, custom built furniture. The larger the furniture, like cabinets and beds, the more economical it is to use plywood.
Particle board: This is a manmade material made out of woodchips and binders like resin. It is easy to cut into different shapes, but must be covered with a veneer. If you like a more organic look, this style may be too synthetic for you. It's easy to create furniture with, so manufacturers are able to provide a wide variety of design. Since it's not actual wood, it's not durable. If a chair or a bed starts wobbling, there's no way to fix it. This medium simply doesn't have the density to accommodate a repair.
More about particle board
It's a new year, and for many of us around the world, we're still holed up indoors due to the pandemic. Never before has it mattered more how our homes make us feel. We need them to be functional, sure, but we also want them to be pleasing, to offer nooks and corners where we can be inspired. And after seeing the same furniture and artefacts for months on end, let's face it, some boredom sets in. Enter the bold, striking accent piece. With fairly minimal effort, we can make a dramatic change to sections of our homes. That accent piece can be anything- a colorful, etched lamp, or a new statement indoor plant. I've always found these lamps so romantic, a touch of old-world charm that adds a splash of color. What matters is that it is bold enough to make a difference on its own. So often, I've seen people hesitate, scared to experiment, scared to take chances. As they say, if it's not a one way door, go ahead and give it a try!
We'd love to hear from you if you've tried a small change that made a big difference.
Wow, it's almost Ganesh Chaturthi, the festival that seems to usher all other festivals leading up to Diwali. It feels like the first 7 months went by grappling with COVID-19 and the new world order it imposed on us, and before we know it, it's August. With the pandemic raging, this is going to be a different chaturthi, certainly a more somber one, and hopefully one that is celebrated responsibly, from a distance.
As hard as the pandemic is on everyone, artisans who rely on the festive period to make the bulk of their annual income have been hit hard. During the festivities, ganesh idol craftsman receive large orders for the many "pandals" that crop up all over the city. With celebrations rightly cancelled, orders have dried up and these craftsmen are suffering, left holding excess inventory, or at the very least, not earning during this key period. This article by the Times of India has done a good job covering the plight of craftsman in Coimbatore, but I'd think the situation is the same all over the country.
Let's take a moment to appreciate the skills of these craftsmen, skills that have been handed down from generations. I was hoping to showcase several varieties of ganesh idols, but the lockdown has affected our supply chain as well. So I'm featuring what I could lay my hands on- a wooden ganesh in a tribal style from my personal collection, and one that we have available in Sanskriti Lifestyle, with turquoise inlay work. Looking forward to a day when COVID-19 is a thing of the past, and we can freely share the full breadth and diversity of our artisans. Until then, stay safe!
More about Ganesh Chaturthi on Wikipedia