Politics and Power: A Brief History of Chairs in India

In 2016, the Godrej Archives, established to document and preserve the legacy of the Godrej Group, published With Great Truth & Regard: A History of the Typewriter in India. This book on the once familiar object helped create a kind of discourse that has been rare in India – the “cultural biography” of an object. From the Frugal to the Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India by Sarita Sundar is the sequel to this book, compiling essays on the very early history of the seat – including the chair in the European sense – in India, with a wealth of photographs (many from the Godrej archives), paintings and posters illustrating this story.

Over the centuries, the seat in India has taken on many shapes, forms and styles. It begins with the austere simplicity of the patlo or palakka – a low, usually wooden seat used by people in their daily chores – and the mooda (low stool) or charpai (woven bed), which continue to serve as a new source inspiration for 21st century designers. If the molded plastic bucket chair in waiting rooms speaks of a certain universality and accessibility in India’s urban spaces, another part of the story is told by the legendary and ornate Peacock Throne or Takht-i- Ta’us (jeweled throne) of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The book is as much about India’s ancient civilization, with a rich tradition of craftsmanship, as it is about a modernizing nation. As the number of factories and commercial offices increased and cities grew, the “desk chair”, with its wheels and sophisticated support mechanisms, and the highly versatile plastic chair came to represent an India that was changing rapidly and always on the move.

The story of the seat – who sits where and how high, who has one and who doesn’t – is also a story of politics and power. To take an example, there is a story about the shifting sands of power in the journey of the Peacock Throne from Diwan-i-Khas to Delhi’s Red Fort to Persia after Nadir Shah’s attack in 1739, where he has been dismantled, each of its precious components, including the Kohinoor, end up in other hands. But more than any elaborate throne, including those of Mysore or Travancore, the low planter’s chair, with its indelible association with the Raj, has come to represent power – not just of the British colonialist over the underlings” natives”, but also of caste and sex because the Indians adapted it to their use.

All of these inequalities were not erased after India began its modernization project, but the chairs that began to dot the landscape after 1947 speak of a nation that was slowly but stubbornly democratizing. Take, for example, the new nuclear family dining table chair, accessible to everyone, regardless of age and gender. Or the Irani Cafe chair, representing the growing proliferation of communal dining spaces, and the plastic Monobloc chair, first created by Canadian designer DC Simpson in 1946, and now found throughout India and available to sit n anyone from museum security guards to wedding guests.

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