Your Seat in 200 BC India
Elevated seating has long had its place in India. Contrary to the belief that seating was introduced in India only later in the medieval period, allusions to these forms can be drawn from as early as 200 BC from Buddhist relief sculptures. Astronomer Varahamihira’s text, Brihat Samhita (6th century CE) enumerates 14 species of wood for furniture-making, including sandalwood, teak, and blackwood. The ancient Shilpashastras list 64 techniques of arts and crafts and detail time for cutting and seasoning, suggesting the use of wood in India dates back to several centuries. Over the years, forms of seating diversified in manner, aesthetic and versatility. Whether it was the twin-swing seats for idyllic recreation, elevated seats for learned men, low stools for all or thrones reserved for kings - India had developed a form of seating suitable for every occasion.
ASANAS - Elevated Seats
References to the earliest forms of seats are made in literature as early as the Rigvedic period (6th century BCE), sculptures and paintings at the Ajanta and Ellora Caves (2nd century BCE), and Buddhist relief sculptures (2nd century BCE).
This large hemispherical Chaitya Griha (shrine hall) at the Ajanta caves features a seated Buddha at the centre, on an elaborately carved elevated seat and a foot rest. Several other exquisite sculptures of seated figures are behind the pillars on the right.
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Coin From Early Gupta Period Coin From Early Gupta Period by UnknownOriginal Source: CSMVS
Coins issued in the Gupta period (3rd century CE), folios from Jain manuscripts (c.13th century CE), miniature paintings from Basholi (17th century CE) and Rajasthan, and architectural elements like step-wells (baoris), which doubled as spaces for retreat, adorned with platforms, galleries, ledges and backrests - all depict various inventive forms of elevated seating.
Top Asia India Ellora And Ajanta Caves Hill Stations VariousLIFE Photo Collection
Initially reserved for those in positions of authority like kings and learned persons, the common terms for the highest chair were rajasana (king's throne), or mayurasana (peacock throne) and simhasana (lion throne).
One of the earliest examples is the throne of Rao Setaram of Kannauj (12th century CE), which is structurally similar to an ordinary chair, has a high reclining back, arms and a footrest.
Emperor Shah Alam II (reigned 1759-1806) on the Peacock Throne Emperor Shah Alam II (reigned 1759-1806) on the Peacock ThroneLos Angeles County Museum of Art
Another iconic example is the Peacock Throne, commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1628. It was ascended by silver steps and backed with two peacock plumes, gilded, enamelled, inset with diamonds and semi-precious stones. (Agra, 1635; and Red Fort, Delhi, 1648)
Hindola Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1650) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art
JHOOLAS - Swings
For centuries, swings have been an allegory of amatory, festivity and celebration, and their dynamic form evokes a sense of exuberance. While early literary references to swings can be seen in the Vedas, later visual depictions are seen in miniature paintings from the Mughal period as well as Deccan-style paintings from Bijapur.
Even today, the regions of Mathura and Vrindavan in northern India celebrate the Jhulan (Swing) Festival - that extols the love between Radha and Krishna, with elaborate swings, song and dance.
Deccani Miniature Painting of Raga Hindola by UnknownOriginal Source: CSMVS
In their simplest forms, swings were constructed with a wooden board that was suspended from a tree. More elaborate versions for couples were made from silver or brass and decorated with trimmings, bolsters and gaddas (mattresses).
Suspended either inside homes, or outside in courtyards, swings are still found in larger abodes and are often considered symbols of luxury.
Folio from Jain Manuscript of Kalpasutra and Kalakacharya Katha by UnknownOriginal Source: CSMVS
Low stools were used by people of all social standings due to their ease of mobility. They were occasionally adorned with cushions or elaborate carvings. Puranic references to low stools can be found in sculptures of the Ikshyaku dynasty.
Varadi Ragini, Fourth Wife of Dipak Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (1675-1700) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art
Bolsters were used by both royalty and commoners. They were often seen in Mughal miniatures of the 16th century.
Generally strewn across carpets and rugs, the bolsters’ bulbous forms could be used not only as elevated forms of seating but also as backrests and armrests.
Malkos Raga, Folio from a Ragamala (Garland of Melodies) (circa 1675) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art
The charpai derives its name from the Hindi words 'char' and ‘pai’ which literally translate into ‘four legs’.
While the divan - a more affluent version of the charpai - became symbolic to royalty, during the Mughal period, the charpai gained popularity with the common man.
The portable structure of the charpai made it a simple, economic staple in Indian households. Its versatility ranged from its use for sleeping or seating multiple people at spontaneous gatherings to being stacked away when not in use.
The Emperor Humayun (1610)Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art
A chowkie refers to a low square stool that was, at times, enhanced with a carved backrest.
Although commonly found in prayer rooms in Indian homes, the chowkie could serve additional purposes, such as a footstool.
Instruction by Monks, Folio from a Jain text of Sanskrit Grammar, the Siddhahemashabdanushasana by Hemachandra (1089-1172) (circa 1350) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art
The patla is a form of low seating that is generally present in various religious ceremonies and rituals in India.
It is traditionally made out of wood and is rectangular in shape. The patla is lower than the chowkie - elevated just barely off of the floor.
Rembrandt's Emperor Jahāngīr Receiving an Officer (AD 1656 - 1661)British Museum
Etymologically, kursi (chair) has its origin in Arabic for ‘throne’, which finds its way to Turkish, Persian, Hindi and Urdu, with similar meaning.
Sitting In Pre-Independent India
Local methods and practice of furniture design in India gradually embraced foreign styles and influence resulting in the creation of a unique design language. The advent of Islam in the 7th Century along with the arrival of the Mughal Emperors into the subcontinent in the 16th Century brought with them the intricacies of what came to be known as the Indo-Islamic style. Simultaneously, Western design influences came to the south, with the Dutch and Portuguese colonisers in the 16th and 17th Centuries. British Imperial rule in India from 1858 - 1947 introduced styles such as Victorian and Edwardian, along with European movements such as Aestheticism, which merged with Indian design to give rise to an Anglo-Indian vocabulary, and hybrid styles such as the Indo-Saracenic. From 1920s to the 1940s, Modernism created the bridge between pre-independent and post-independent India along with the Art Deco and Bauhaus styles.
Traditional Islamic furniture featured marquetry inlay in wood, the use of ceramic tiles or plaques on tabletops, and intricate work on objects such as caskets and chests. This manner of fine inlay work possibly developed from styles and techniques used in the making of weapons and musical instruments. The emergence of Islam in India in the 7th century CE brought about an Islamic influence on the methods and customs of Indian furniture-making. Some of the common practices included relief carvings on materials such as wood, metal, marble, and enamel, ornamentation using geometric patterns and naturalistic renditions of animals and flora, motif inspired calligraphy, and intricately pierced work on objects such as screens, doors, tabletops, and the backs of chairs.
Indo-Islamic: Peacock Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India
The flared, high-arched back of this tall, statuesque type of chair evokes the canopy-like structure of the 17th-century mayurasana (Peacock Throne) used by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It is christened the ‘hourglass chair’ owing to the eponymous shape of its base. Descendants of the peacock chair were made of materials such as wrought iron, gold-toned metal wire, or oak and metal, and were occasionally coated with a brightly coloured paint.
This version of the peacock chair is made out of intricately woven cane, and has a round, cushioned seat. The fantail-like back is elaborately woven in a jaali-like pattern, similar to the latticed architectural element found in Indo-Islamic monuments.
Indo-Islamic: X Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India
The X-Chair developed in Italy during the late 15th to early 16th Century and is associated with Girolamo Savonarola, a preacher form the Renaissance period. However, its inlay work is reminiscent of Indo-Islamic craftsmanship.
Known as the X-Chair or Scissor Chair, this folding chair is supported by two curved intersecting wooden structures that form the letter X. The top-rail is connected to the back of the straight arms, and the narrow seat is held in place by the wooden slats on either sides.
This rendition of the chair features elaborate carvings along with meticulous inlay design similar to the Indo-Islamic style. The wooden back rail has motifs resembling peacocks, and the handrails are inlaid with designs resembling jaguar heads.
Indo-Portuguese and Indo-Dutch Styles
Ornamental furniture assumed a new form with the arrival of the Portuguese and the Dutch in India during the 16th - 17th Centuries. Indo-Portuguese and Indo-Dutch styles emerged through the seamless integration of the Western practice of fine woodwork and the intricacies of Indian carvings and designs. The resulting furniture had heavy, rigid features that simultaneously conveyed a senes of openness, as well as delicate patterning and ornamentation skillfully placed in the confines of the wooden structures. This type of furniture was not only utilitarian but also stood as arresting artefacts.
Indo-Dutch: Carved Ornamental Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India
CARVED ORNAMENTAL CHAIR
Indo-Dutch furniture was marked by skilled carpentry and craftsmanship. Although this style of furniture appeared simple, it consisted of intricate carvings, indicative of trained artistic hands. Some of the carvings were evocative of the decorative Batavian style from Java, Indonesia, the then administrative seat of the Dutch in the East.
This chair, with its slightly angled back, was probably made from dark ebony. It is elaborately carved with ornate, yet elegant, motifs of flowers, birds, deities and stylised foliage on the backrest and along the periphery of the seat. Images of deities appear on either end of the top-rail, as well as in the centre of the seat. Ornate scrollwork with floral designs adorn the frontal S-shaped portion of the legs.
Indo-Portuguese: Folding Chair With Armrests by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India
FOLDING CHAIR WITH ARMRESTS
Indo-Portuguese style furniture originated at the climax of Portuguese supremacy in India, between 1510 to the mid-1630s, and continued until the late 19th Century. These types of folding chairs had an open, comfortable form and were usually made out of cane or rattan.
This stately folding chair is in the Goan style, a type of Indo-Portuguese style, and is crafted using rosewood and woven cane. The vertical slats of the back extend seamlessly to form one set of rear legs. The ends of the curved armrests of the chair comprise heads of a serpent-like creature. The legs are carved in the Marlborough style - straight, squared, plain, and tapered in the ends. The back has an intricately woven central panel with a crest rail carved in a foliate pattern.
Indo-Dutch: Burgomaster Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
The name of the Burgomaster Chair is derived from the Dutch word ‘burgemeester’, which translates into ‘mayor’, attributing a higher status to this chair. This chair, popularly known as a round chair, was made in the East Indies - Indonesia, South India, and Sri Lanka - since the late 1600s while India was under the Dutch East India Company, and attained its name ‘Burgomaster’ only in the 19th century.
Initially used as single, standalone pieces, they were also found in sets of four or six which suggests that these chairs were not always suggestive of rank.
This chair is made of wood - probably teak - and has a cane seat. The circular, cane seat is backed by a concave, open backrest that consists of two rows of evenly spaced spindles. The finials are devoid of heavy ornamental carvings, an otherwise common stylistic element of such chairs.
British Imperial rule in India (1858-1947) gave rise to various styles such as English Chippendale, Sheraton, and Jacobean - from the Victorian, Georgian and Edwardian eras - which merged with Indian designs to create a category of Anglo-Indian or Colonial furniture. This period also saw the influence of Aestheticism - the late 19th century European arts movement centered on the principle that art existed exclusively for beauty - which inspired decadent carving and rich embroidered fabrics in Colonial furniture as well. During the British rule there was also a popular rise in portable furniture called Camping furniture which was characterised by its lightweight, portability and versatility. The patronisation of objects such as folding chairs by itinerant British army officers eventually found their way to campers and adventures.
Colonial: Plantation Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
The plantation chair (or the planter’s chair) was commissioned by the British during their rule in India. They were traditionally made out of mahogany, rosewood or teak, had low seats woven out of cane or rattan, and a reclining back. Designed for comfort, this type of chair, also known as the easy chair or chaise lounge, consisted of two long arms, and a lower section that extended as a footrest.
In addition to being shipped to Britain, these chairs became a common sight at waiting rooms of railway stations in India. It continues to be a popular fixture in most spacious homes, libraries, and clubhouses in present day Mumbai, Kolkata and Goa.
This plantation chair is made of wood, probably teak, and has a seat made of either can or rattan. The chair has sturdy legs with a series of rounded ridges carved at regular interval. The reeded leg is similar to a fluted leg, except that the former is convex as opposed to concave. The rear legs are of a sabre style, flaring out marginally.
Colonial: Cabriole-Leg Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
The Georgian cabriole-leg chair was a solid, yet elegant structure. Often, it strongly evoked a Chippendale style which was popular in Calcutta, India, in the late 18th century.
This chair combines the French Rococo with the English Chippendale style to create a product with a yoke-shaped top-rail, a pierced vertical back-slat with sharply carved foliate scrolls, and an upholstered seat raised on finely structured legs. The front legs are of the lion’s feet design - a type of cabriole design - and the rear legs are of the Marlborough style - a block-foot base without any elaborate carvings.
Colonial: Folding Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
Camping furniture, such as the folding chair, became popular during the colonial rule in India due to ease of portability. The folding chairs featured a pivot directly under the seat that could be shifted to a right angle when the chair needed to be unfolded for use. Folding chairs continue to be common features in houses where temporary seating is required.
This folding chair does not have a full distinct backrest, but has a broad, curved top-rail with upward bent edges. The backrest is connected to the front legs that tilts from the back and crosses the seat neat the centre; narrow stretchers connect the legs of the chair.
Colonial: Textile Folding Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
TEXTILE FOLDING CHAIR
The textile folding chair was an example of British camping furniture. This chair was the result of the combination of the planter’s chair with the Roorkhee chair. The chair consisted of two primary components - a wooden frame and long armrests that were characteristic of the planter’s chairs, and the durable canvas seat that was typical of the Roorkhee chair used by the Indian Army Corps of Engineers in Roorkhee. These types of chairs were simple, functional, portable and durable.
The wooden frame for the reclining back of this folding chair is affixed with a foldable canvas that extends to form the backrest as well as the seat. The backrest, above the arms, has a wing-like protrusion. A couple-railed footrest forms a conduit-like structure between the two forelegs.
Colonial: Hammock Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
British camping furniture included hammock chairs - large, imposing chairs with ample leg rest. Owing to their sturdy frames and adjustable reclining backs, these chairs were used for leisure and comfort.
In this particular hammock chair, form and function takes precedence over aesthetic quality. The plank along the top-rail has a simple scallop-shaped design with slight protrusion at the ends. The folding, slender legs are rounded at the joints, and have H-shaped stretchers running between the rear legs.
Hybrid styles, the synthesis of techniques and practices from various artistic movements, were evident in not only architecture but also furniture design. For example, the Indo-Saracenic method combined Islamic design with Indian materials and was developed by British architects in India during the late 19th to early 20th Century. The Indo-Saracenic style involves rich mouldings, ornate decorations, usage of gilded iron, and prominent spherical and curved patterns. Local Rajasthani and Gujarati forms established themselves in furniture-making as well, and brought in elements such as corbel, and (pendant and eave-like) formations.
Hybrid: Ram-Head Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India
Indo-Saracenic styles featured an amalgamation of European form with regal Indian and Mughal ornamentation and design. The wood used in this type of furniture was adorned with intricate silverware and rich, cushioned seating, similar to Mughal thrones.
The curved top-rail of the chair has an intricately carved finial that runs parallel to the back slat, and its front legs flare out slightly indicating they sabre style. The cushioned seating is designed with repeating, identical forms. The ram head’s earlier appearance could be attributed to the jewelled and enamelled daggers of the Mughal period.
Hybrid: Lockwood Chair by Lockwood de ForestOriginal Source: Hutheesing Design Company
On his first visit to India in the early 1880s, prolific American interior and furniture designer Lockwood de Forest collaborated with philanthropist Mugganbhai Hutheesing to form the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company (AWCC). Produced at the AWCC by local craftsmen, these chairs are emblematic of the Aesthetic Movement of the late-19th Century, characterised by love for beauty, ornamentation and decoration in addition to functionality.
This chair has a straight back and is upholstered with richly embroidered fabric. In terms of ornamentation, it combines Indian, North African and Far Eastern design motifs. Its back is delicately chiselled with a scroll-like pattern, and the crest is shaped in a club-like formation. The frieze overhanging the seat also has a carved floral pattern. The legs are of the cabriole style with an S-shaped structure.
Bombay and Ahmedabad emerged as important centres for manufacturing. Bombay Blackwood was one of the prominent establishments, owing its name to the dark hues of Malabar teak, shisham wood and rosewood, and was patronised by wealthy Parsi families. Superseding the Ahmedabad carvers were the carpenters of the neighbouring town of Dholera, the chief timber market district. Blackwood was also used to make furniture at workshops in Madras and Monghyr (present day Bihar).
Regional: Bombay Blackwood Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India
BOMBAY BLACKWOOD CHAIR
The chair with a low seat and four curved legs was of the ‘prie-dieu’ style, and was designed specifically for prayer. The low, upholstered seat was meant for kneeling, and the crest of the backrest was used as an elbow-rest.
However, this type of chair probably served a secular purpose in the living rooms of wealthy households. Bombay Blackwood furniture, patronised by the British and wealthy Parsi families in the Bombay Presidency, was characterised by bulky, ornate features.
This chair consists of an intricately carved frame with decorative elements such as fruits, vines, foliage, birds, and serpentine creatures. The curved front legs feature a lion-like figure, while the rear legs are thin and nimble.
Regional: Sankheda Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, India
The Sankheda style originates from the town of Sankheda in Gujarat. The Sankheda chair-crafting process consisted of five stages - the creation of individual teak wood elements on a pedhe or lathe; the painting of designs on tin attached to these pieces; the application of a lac coat; the polishing of the lac with a kevada leaf and groundnut oil; and the combination of these sections into a single product.
The tin-painted patterns changed colour once heated and lined with lac. Due to the limitations imposed by the technique and materials used, the finished products had a fixed range of colours such as brown, orange, maroon, and gold.
This Sankheda Chair is a straight-backed armchair in a cube-like form. The boldness of the structure is evoked through the tiered pattern of spindles that hold the frame of the back. The two edges of the backrest are topped with finials.
Modernism became prevalent in post-independent India, and was evident in architecture and furniture design. Some of the influences included Marcel Breuer’s cantilevered tubular chair, and Le Corbusier’s chaise lounge and pipe-bent chairs, George Nakashima’s grass-seated chair. George Nakashima, through his use of technology and simplicity of form, facilitated mass production in Pondicherry and Ahmedabad.
Modern: Grass-Seated Chair by George NakashimaOriginal Source: Vinay Parikh
George Nakashima created a new version of the Grass-Seated Chair during his time in Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design in 1964. Along with creating a strong, yet lightweight piece of furniture by combing technology with craftsmanship, he also formulated his own definition of modernism.
The Grass-Seated Chair reflects traditional Japanese woodworking methods. The simplicity of the design can be seen in its backrest supported by finely structured stiles and curved semicircular top-rail. The rectangular seat is woven using twine made out of natural grass, and the chair is supported by four slender legs that comprise a H-shaped stretcher.
The dowel construction work on the joints skirting the seat is deliberately made visible and parallels Nakashima’s philosophy pf exposing structure in design.
Modern: Cross Easy Chair by Pierre JeanneretOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
CROSS EASY CHAIR
Designed by the Swiss architect and furniture designer Pierre Jeanneret during his stay in Chandigarh in the 1950s, the Cross Easy Chair was an example of a sculptural, elegant piece of furniture from the Modernist period in postcolonial India.
The minimal and humble design of this chair involves braided cane-work. The armrests and legs are structured at sharp, well-defined angles, and the seat is broad enough to provide comfort to the sitter.
The sleek design of the chair, along with the slightly elevated armrest, cane backrest and seat are indicative of the combination of Modernist and colonial design.
Early modernism had begun shaping up in pre-independent India, however, it was isolated to the works of few designers and architects. The influence of the Bauhaus school of modern design (1919-1933) in India was evident in several mass-produced products, such as tubular steel chairs, tables and living room sets by companies such as Godrej and Boyce & Co manufactured through the 1930s.
Bauhaus: Godrej Steel Chair by Godrej & BoyceOriginal Source: Godrej Archives
GODREJ STEEL CHAIR
The tubular steel chair was first designed by Bauhaus designers Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe between 1925 and 1927, and drew inspiration from the tubular steel frame of a bicycle.
In 1930-31, Thonet introduced Model B32, Marcel Breuer’s first cantilevered tubers steel chair which had a great influence on the stylisation of similar chairs.
This version of the tubular chair by Godrej consists of a single tubular steel pipe that continues from the armrest to the base of the chair. The spring effect of the cantilever enhances comfort. The Godrej tubular chair combines hardwood and tubular steel to produce a sturdy, durable and ergonomic product.
Art Deco Style
Art Deco (1920s-1940s) was initially patronised in India by Maharajas, British firms, and old, elite families. The influence of Art Deco then spread to families of the princely states, such as Gujarat, where it was embraced by the palaces of Wankaner and Morbi. Eventually, this style gained momentum in the hands of architects and in the designs of cinema halls in Bombay. Furniture in this category include simple beds with bold, geometric forms, big, oval dressing tables, rounded sofas and chairs, heavy drawers, chests, and elaborate wardrobes.
Art Deco: Round Chair by UnknownOriginal Source: From the collection of MoDE
The Art Deco style came into Bombay in the 1920s and stems from a fascination with movement and speed characteristic to transportation of the Machine Age.
The bold form and clean ribbed lines of the cushioned back of this chair evokes a sense of dynamism. The wooden base of the armless chair is akin to a stool or an ottoman, and its fan-shaped flared back is typical of the Art Deco style.
Placing yourself India Today
In the broader sense of the word, design has always held its place of importance in ancient India. However, the formal implementation of design as Industry, was perhaps first seen during the post-Independence era when nation building had gained considerable impetus. This momentum was brought to a standstill for three decades during which India was buffeted by economic as well as political shocks, such as wars with China (1962) and Pakistan (1965), and two successive years of drought that led to food shortages. In response to these challenges, bank nationalisation policies were implemented to promote growth in agriculture, small industries and export, to encourage new entrepreneurs, and to develop backward areas; however, these policies proved to do more harm than good. Since the challenge of innovation for the newly independent India of the 20th century was to build infrastructure, which could then build industry, the growth of industrial design was, consequently, hindered. Eventually, it was only with the economic liberalisation in 1991, that a new and enterprising groups of designers emerged.
Individual architects and product designers began experimenting with the traditional and the contemporary in terms of material technologies and cultural aesthetics. However, these individual participations have not been sufficient to create adequate impact. While the legacy of design in India today owes its inception to the pioneering minds of Ardeshir Godrej and Sir Dorabji Tata, the delayed exposure has impacted the evolution of industrial design in India.
As the number of traditionally skilled workmen, sutars, who hand-crafted furniture, dwindle, the convenience of city-specific boutiques and online brands such as Pepperfry and Urban Ladder have begun gaining traction.
Newly launched brands such as Script by Godrej and Forma by JSW Steel, who employ standardised production to create innovative furniture, are beginning to influence urban living.
Read more about India's design objects on:
- Keeping it Cool, on thermal comfort;
- On the trail - devices for safekeeping valuables;
- Pots and vessels, on the philosophy of plenitude;
- Transmitting hope, how electronics linked India.