THE IMAGE of a chair in India generally hints at an allegory of the search for political power. However, it may also reveal social history, as an exhibition at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala reveals.
THE IMAGE of a chair in India generally hints at an allegory of the search for political power. However, it may also reveal social history, as an exhibition at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale in Kerala reveals. Kissa Kursi Ka, a collateral event by New Delhi-based designer Gunjan Gupta, deals with the idea of sitting in India. “Prior to the arrival of Europeans in India, we primarily sat on the floor. Elevated seating existed only as thrones, symbolising power,” says Gupta. Her sculptural seats—on display at a warehouse for antique furniture in Mattancherry, Kochi—contain pieces of carpets, quilts and bolsters, among other materials. “The integration of elevated seats into our lifestyle started in the 15th century with the arrival of Vasco da Gama,” she says.
On higher ground
As per Gupta, the Portuguese explorer brought the essence of the chair to India when he landed in Kozhikode in northern Kerala in 1498. “He brought the European lifestyle with him,” says Gupta. The main exhibit, Kissa Kursi Ka Totem Pole, is a pile of objects such as a stool, carpet, quilt, bolster and a wooden box arranged under a chair, showing the evolution of furniture design in India. “It’s a comment on the time when elevated sitting started to become common and was no more reserved as a symbol of power,” says Gupta, who has an entire body of work from 10 years of research on the subject of seating in India. “We never had a history of furniture. It was a borrowed life choice,” says the designer.
But why did she choose to showcase her works at a warehouse for antique furniture far from the biennale venue of Fort Kochi? When she first came to Mattancherry in September last year to scout for a location, Gupta says she was transfixed by what she saw at the warehouse. “It was a crazy warehouse,” she recalls. “The place had a lot of traditional crafts and colonial furniture.”
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Gupta induced a contemporary twist to the chairs by going back to the theme of bicycles she had first introduced at the 2008 ExperimentaDesign festival in Amsterdam. “Bicycle vendors today appear to be framed in a halo of their own products arranged all over their vehicle,” says Gupta, who studied art and design at Central Saint Martins, London. The result is a series of ‘bicycle thrones’. One such, Khilonewala Bicycle Throne, is made of a steel chair, coloured balls, upholstered foam and recycled bicycle parts. Another, Boriwala Bicycle Throne, uses jute, foam and a steel frame along with recycled bicycle parts. Bartanwala Bicycle Throne has handcrafted brass vessels with recycled bicycle parts. Mudawala Bicycle Throne, Kapdawala Bicycle Throne and Gaddawala Bicycle Throne complete the pack.
“It’s an interesting intervention as a collateral project,” says Riyas Komu, secretary and director, programme, Kochi Biennale Foundation, about Kissa Kursi Ka, which is curated by Yoichi Nakamuta, who brought together 12 top designers from Asia, including Gupta, at the 21st Triennale in Milan last year to create a ‘Made in Asia’ exhibition. “The biennale is a multi-disciplinary exercise and, in the context of design, Kissa Kursi Ka has got an interesting dimension,” says Komu. “The exhibition’s venue, Heritage Arts, has been dealing with antique and contemporary furniture for generations. It’s a place where things are collected and meanings are attached.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer