This chair is exactly the kind of thing I picture when I hear my mom talk about the “good old days” growing up in Bangalore. The key feature of the planter’s chair is its swing-out arm extension meant for putting your feet up on – to relax, or in the days of British colonialism, while your Man Friday pulled off your boots. My mom tells me we had two of these on the veranda of our family home on Museum Road. I imagine my grandfather sinking into it and his thoughts on a balmy afternoon, while his eleven kids tiptoed around him, planning the day’s itinerary of scaling compound walls and climbing mango trees.
On my last trip to India, my friends and I were celebrating the holiday season in typically Indian fashion – by travelling from party to wedding to party all across the peninsula – when I spotted this beauty quietly occupying a corner of Amrit’s childhood room in his parents’ house in Chennai. I blame jetlag for a sudden urge to throw all plans out the window and stretch out for a nap. For my succumbing to this urge, I blame the chair.
My journalistic instincts did hold out long enough to score this sweet (?) little tidbit from the past: the chair belonged to Amrit’s grandfather. After he passed away, Amrit moved it from the old family home to his room and made sure it never left. “I remember him sitting there, the man of the house, feet up and smoking his hookah,” he says. “He was from Afghanistan, so he always had his gun leaning against one side of the chair and his hookah near the other. He would hang out on the veranda, sometimes all day, legs stretched out, smoking heroin.” He stops and laughs, wondering if he’s said too much. Ah, the good old days. “Basically,” he continues, “I like keeping it in my room because it reminds me of him. It’s like a piece of his existence will always remain here…”
As the Chennai sun streamed golden through the window, I closed my eyes to visions of hookahs and mango trees.
A little bit of history about the planter’s chair: Although planter’s chairs are now associated with India, their origins are unclear. Apparently, there weren’t any chairs in India before the British arrived, only gaddis (cushions) and the takht (throne). Chairs arrived in the 17th century, along with the Europeans. But by the late nineteenth century, planter’s chairs had become a fixture on verandas across British India.
Sotheby’s David MacDonald, furniture specialist, believes that local craftsmen in Sri Lanka and India were engaged by their colonial masters to adapt the European chair design for the tropics. “I think this is a three-way thing,” says MacDonald. “You have someone who has imported the European furniture design, and then you have a local European probably telling a craftsman, ‘When I have finished my day and have a gin and tonic or rum punch, I want a chair I can sit on and relax.’ ” He considers the planter’s chair to be a perfect fusion of east and west.
What I like about the planter’s chair is its way of becoming a window into the past without looking like it belongs in a museum or making you feel like you have to tiptoe around it. I love how streamlined it is and the fact that whoever designed it was really thinking about comfort. Most of all, I love how its colonial origins haven’t obscured what it is – a good chair – and how today we use it in our own, unique Indian way with our own, unique memories attached to it. Like Amrit’s grandfather, I could probably hang out in it all day – with a cup of tea and a newspaper, for an afternoon siesta, with a gin and tonic…design like this will never be passé.