This book reveals how the chairs made by Godrej were symbolic of the socialist vision of independent India

In the middle of the dilapidated factory floor, a family of chairs sit in a circular conference. Despite various stages of dilapidation, these chairs with painted frames, seats and backs in white plastic caning, and the synergy of proportions, betray their kinship. Pulled from a tangle of rusty green and gray metal, remnants of machines similar to those that produced them, they stand away from the tables and other office fixtures with which they were surely associated, looking hesitant, lonely and uncertain.

This factory shed in Mysore, in the south Indian state of Karnataka, was once a bustling unit where iconic Yezdi and Jawa motorcycles – brands that have captured the imagination of bikers across the India – were made. In 2004, after nearly half a century, the factory ceased production. As news of the closure spread, bike enthusiasts, scrap metal dealers and other eccentric collectors flocked to rummage through the medley of items that tell a manufactory’s story.

The chairs here – the CH-13 Executive Revolving Tilting Chair and the CH-7 Chair in Tubular Steel and Cane – were first made in the 1930s by Godrej & Boyce. They were among the many objects produced to meet the needs of a newly formed and independent nation – combining “utility with aesthetic appeal” so to speak.

The chairs, made of new steel forged in factories around the country, like other furniture made at Godrej & Boyce, celebrated “the assembly line and the drama of automation”; symbolic of a socialist idea of ​​modernism – of the spirit of fairness, economy and access.

Laneway artisans weave new canes onto the frames of a ‘library chair’, designed and produced by French architect Pierre Jeanerret and Urmila Eulie Chowdhury (credited as India’s first qualified female architect) in the 1950s for standard use in Chandigarh’s public buildings.

Jeanerret worked with his cousin Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, on the plan of the first “modern” Indian city carved out of a rural wasteland in Punjab. While the city of Chandigarh exhibits the “brutalist” style typical of Le Corbusier’s modernist architecture with extensive use of exposed concrete – a “modern” material not used in traditional Indian masonry – furniture made by his cousin incorporates the formal language of the Modernist style with local craftsmanship and often tedious detailing.

The chairs in the alley were, in all likelihood, sourced from scrap yards in Chandigarh where they were dumped by the city administration in the late 1990s, barely half a century after they were made. Under the watchful eye of the antique shop owner, the library chairs are painstakingly restored before being stamped with a certificate of authenticity by an agent from an international auction house, and ultimately surrender at dealers, museums, galleries and even in the homes of celebrities. in cities around the world.

Two craftsmen weave new cane on the frames of a teak chair. | Photo credit: Sarita Sundar

The vigilant agent is there to ensure that their authenticity is intact, that they are repaired just enough; wooden surfaces are not rubbed to obtain a high polish; the white paint peeling off the label in places is not touched up; the curious administrative code remains distressed, all proud reminders of their authenticity and place in Chandigarh’s bureaucratic history.

Such spaces – abandoned factories and backstreet antique shops – have become the “excavations” of the “archeology of modernism”, discovered by chance or purposefully unearthed by auction houses, antique dealers or personal collectors. .

Can objects with a history of barely seventy years be called vintage? Antique? To collect? What makes objects that are neither of great material value, nor often even particularly well finished by contemporary standards, enjoy such demand after relatively shorter pasts? Why and how do even reproductions by modern masters acquire and retain an “aura”? Is their value a consequence of their association with design, architectural and cultural history?

Three strongholds – or citadels – of modernism were born in the middle of the 20th century in response to a call from the State to contribute to the construction of a new India. Godrej’s CH series and Chandigarh chairs emerged from two of the three defined in this essay – the Chandigarh project and the factories of companies like Godrej & Boyce. Much of the pedagogical legacy of modernism in design in India originated at the third – the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad.

More than half a century after it was first manufactured in 1960, the CH-13 executive swivel chair, the mainstay of most public offices in India, has been superseded by sleeker, lighter swivel chairs. Yet lovingly restored, the CH-13 finds pride of place as a task chair in a designer’s home in Goa; dubbed “The Champ” in an upscale boutique in Mumbai; and used to make a retro style statement in fashionable interiors.

Contemporary avatars appear, all within the frame of the original, with natural cane replacing plastic; floral cushions making the seats softer; Improved casters and swivel mechanisms for smoother movement. The cantilevered CH-4 chair (inspired by modernist designer Marcel Breuer’s iconic 1928 Cesca chair) like the CH-13, emerged from its gray, stuffy, bureaucratic past by little more than a vivid coat of paint and glossy upholstery in redesigned versions. .

A few decades after their first production, Godrej CH chairs and Chandigarh chairs have been elevated from the realm of the public and everyday to special and collectible – enshrined without even a pedigree, minor cosmetic changes transforming them from utilitarian objects to icons, from seats for traditional office workers to occasional chairs in celebrity homes.

Although the material qualities of these chairs had very little to do with their canonization, their lineage in modernist history or the role they played as marvels of engineering in their time was significant. What cannot be ignored is that their high status is to some extent artificial, a value sanctioned by style mediators.

With the aim of creating a self-sufficient nation, India’s first Prime Minister – Jawaharlal Nehru – called for a modernity based on a global perspective, but based on an Indian foundation. In response and guided by the resolve of the state, modernism entered and spread in India. Industrial policies in 1949, an All India Design Council proposed by MARG (the first arts magazine in India) in 1952, and four landmark exhibitions, were among the various efforts essential to the reciprocal flow of cultural knowledge with the West, marking the entry of a global modernism into the confused, often conflicting melee of vernacular and colonial expressions in India.

Modernism followed many trajectories in India – divergent and contradictory, sometimes parallel, often intersecting. Among these, the counter-vision of modernity adopted by Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan near Calcutta is significant. Founded in 1919, it challenged the cultural essentialism characterized by Western modernism to establish a solid foundation and belief in India’s rich cultural resources, while simultaneously seeking an intensive exchange with Western knowledge. Described as “contextual modernism” by art historian R Siva Kumar, Tagore’s ideas of modernism were based on humanism, and the university promoted a form of regional modernism, distinct from the form of universalization which, in another three decades, would be adopted as a national agenda.

Tagore saw an affinity in the Bauhausian appreciation of Indian craftsmanship and tradition; he however perceived intrinsic problems with Western modernism that tied progress to materialism with a biased emphasis on technology – a concern echoed in Mulk Raj Anand’s op-ed in the June 1967 issue of MARG magazine.

Four exhibitions heralded modernism in India. The “14th Annual Exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art” held in Kolkata in 1922 – with the participation of Bauhaus and Indian artists – was the first of the exhibitions to start conversations about modernism in India and was the direct result of Tagore’s interactions in Europe after he had received the Nobel Prize.

The exhibition, curated by Stella Kamrisch, the Austrian art historian, was seen as a confluence of “Western modernism seeking spiritual and artistic renewal after World War I, and Indian artists struggling to cultural emancipation in late colonial India”. Ironically, in the 1930s, the Bauhaus school, along with forced changes of location due to political pressure, turned around – away from its love of craftsmanship – towards adopting a machine aesthetic.

While the interiors and customs maintained in European homes in India had helped project imperial power during the years of colonial rule, by the end of the 19th century many middle-class Indian homes in urban centers such as Bombay and Calcutta were increasingly westernized. The Army and Navy Catalog and other similar publications that offered advice and guidance to British residents were also consumed by Indians who yearned to project themselves as suitably Westernized.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century, and in response to the years of colonial rule, a significant majority of socially raised urban Indians were seeking a new modernity – a clean shift from all that had passed. And so, across the country from Calcutta, to Bombay on the west coast of India, when the Indian Institute of Architects organized the “Ideal Home Exhibition” in 1937, showcasing ideal and modern homes – up to to one hundred thousand visitors attended.

Products were on display including accessories, furniture and building materials, all projecting a newly imported austere aesthetic, a way to modernize homes with minimal resources. The modern was now firmly established as essentially Western – as opposed to the traditional, national or local.

Excerpted with permission from From Frugal to Ornate: Stories from Siege in India, Sarita Sundar, Godrej.

Angela C. Hale