What does a quintessentially Indian chair look like? Is it the charpai, without which we cannot imagine a rural home? Or the mooda, ideal for low seating around a coffee table or in the corner of a room? Or is it the trustworthy, ubiquitous plastic Monobloc, in red or white—found in public spaces, wedding halls and festive celebrations?
Flipping through the pages of From the Frugal to the Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India by Sarita Sundar is an education in how there cannot be one emblematic chair for a subcontinent that gave birth to a diverse range of seats. The Monobloc’s companions include the iconic wooden chairs found in Mumbai’s Irani restaurants, and the bamboo chairs of Tripura.
Sundar’s book is an encyclopaedic documentation of the evolution of seating, comprising sections on early and sacred elevations, the influence of colonial powers, the impact of Modernist principles, and finally, finding poetry in the everyday and studying the ‘post seat’.
Also read: Tracing the history of the Murshidabad chair
It brims with fact as well as insight: In the entries on the Planter’s Chair, a seat strongly associated with a colonial lifestyle, she describes how it was gender-specific and reminiscent of “men in authority in repose”. The low, reclining design combined with arms that extended to become footrests made the chair unsuitable for Victorian ladies. “It was an ideal seat, from which to authoritatively pontificate…,” Sundar writes. It’s no surprise, then, that the chair earned the colourful moniker ‘Bombay Fornicator’.
Sundar, the founder of heritage interpretation and design consultancy Hanno, recounts early memories of her grandfather and the charukassela—a reclining seat made of teak and canvas—he assumed on a verandah. This was one of her first engagements with a material object. “There was definitely a sense of power associated with it, even though he himself was a very gentle man… It was a standard-issue chair, but he lent it a sense of character,” she says.