A new book traces the evolution and significance of the 'chair' in India

From the Frugal to the Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India by Sarita Sundar, in collaboration with Godrej Archives, explores the cultural importance of the various chairs through Indian history.
Chairs india
Untitled, (Unidentified individual on a Planter's Chair), Bengal Presidency, late 19th century.Unidentified photographer © Sarmaya Arts Foundation

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’.

An assortment of Planter’s Chairs in a verandah of a hotel in Ranikhet, Uttaranchal.

Sarita Sundar

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.

In From the Frugal to the Ornate, written in collaboration with the Godrej Archives, she uses the chair as a vehicle to understand design and culture history, and to encourage the reader to look beyond the face value of an object. Early on in the book, she clarifies, “Every chair is a seat, yet every seat isn’t a chair.” Aside from the more overt understanding that not all seats are four-legged, a chair can be embedded with multiple meanings, Sundar asserts. I’m reminded of the author’s entries on the Gujarati community’s Sankheda Chair or the Oonjal swing seat of Tamil Nadu, both of which play crucial roles in wedding ceremonies.

Also read: These iconic chairs designed by Geoffrey Bawa can now grace your home

The Āyāma Deck Chair is a modern interpretation of the charukassela, created out of a collaboration between Pascal Hien and Nikita Bhate of Sār Studio. Hien and Bhate often translate cultural traditions into contemporary design. The chair references the unique joinery detail of Sankheda Chairs from Gujarat as well as Planter’s Chairs and other Indian reclining chairs that are often low, wide with a sling seat to adapt to varying body shapes.

Sār Studio

A pitha or a paatlo with a backrest is used in ceremonial practices such as worship. Idols are placed on a pitha, while priests and devotees sit on the floor on a mat in front of them.

DICRC, CEPT University and The South Asia Collection

Amid the diversity in material palettes and design, similarities exist too. Being seated on the floor is a custom found in cultures from Kerala to Ladakh, Sundar explains. “Our clothes facilitated this mode of seating—we never wore tight trousers, we wore flowing garments.”

The chair, as we know it, became prominent with the arrival of the Portuguese and the Mughals. Etymology suggests that the Tamil and Malayalam ‘kassera’ has roots in the Portuguese word ‘cadeira’; kursi, on the other hand, is derived from the Arabic word for throne, Sundar says.

“The elevated seat became an indicator, and often, a direct measure of Westernization and pursuant progress,” the author writes. A marked shift occurred under colonization, and in the years after the 15th century, seats featured a fusion of elements from Europe and India. Motifs with an Indian influence meant that the craftsmanship of these fusion forms was considered superior to that of the originals. The Bombay Blackwood Chair exemplified the fashion of this time: inspired by Rococo furnishings, the chair featured winged mythical creatures, elephants and peacocks. The Coromandel Coast was witness to the creation of Turned Ebony Wood Chairs with motifs like apsaras (celestial nymphs) and makaras (mythic sea beasts).

Some chairs are cultural icons unto themselves, such as Shah Jahan’s Peacock Throne—made of a “confusion of diamonds” and other jewels—during a period of wealth and riches in Mughal history. More recently, the Chandigarh Chair with its “distinctive geometric language” earned cult status as it made its way into celebrity homes and boutiques. “The chair’s association to the city has much to do with Chandigarh being one of Modernism’s citadels in India,” says Sundar.

A white plastic chair is probably the most ubiquitous chair there is today. Its very ordinariness makes it blend as easily into an art museum as in a community hall. It demonstrates its power in its adjacency to contemporary art sculptures at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Mumbai, 2018. 

Sarita Sundar

In a note at the start, Jamshyd N. Godrej writes, “The chair is omnipresent yet discreet... Modest as it is, the chair rises above mere utility to become a metaphor for status…” As an object, the chair has displayed great potential for adaptability and malleability. It responds to what is around it, Sundar says—this includes larger political forces at play. The Godrej chairs of post-Independence India were defined by functionality and a machine aesthetic. A response to a call for self-sufficiency and an egalitarian society, they were mass-produced goods that were affordable.

Also read: Inside a Calcutta house of the late 18th century

The Planter’s Chair used for an afternoon siesta at the David Sassoon Library, Mumbai.

Chirodeep Chaudhuri

Not being offered a seat—in bureaucratic settings or for discriminatory reasons—is rooted in questions of power and privilege, too. Such discrimination exists alongside the emergence of the ‘standing desk’ in urban workplaces, touted as a means to reduce health risks and improve posture and productivity. “These two situations coexist in today’s time, but we can’t equate them. India is a world where dichotomies such as this exist,” Sundar signs off.

To buy a copy of the book, write to [email protected]