Queen Anne, Empire, Elizabethan, Louis XVI… these are familiar terms for aficionados who are passionate about antique furniture. Rare and often priceless pieces of furniture from these styles - ranging from the early 18th to 20th century CE are coveted across the world. But did you know that Bombay was home to its own style of furniture - the ‘Bombay Blackwood’ that was so in vogue, that US millionaires and Middle Eastern Sultans used to collect it.
– Bombay was home to its own style of furniture
Around the 1700s, as the islands of Bombay attracted European traders and settlers, there also emerged a demand for custom made furniture by the British, French and Dutch who sailed in. Portuguese arrived in India much earlier and were out of Bombay by the mid of 17th century. Many of them, who had bases here, commissioned the Indians carpenters to make furniture inspired by what they used back home. This amalgamation of European sensibilities and Indian craftsmanship proved to be a good coming together as it created a new style, which was quite unique.
Intricate Indian carving was matched with ornate and solid European designs. To that was added a dark luscious wood, native to the forests of Malabar - blackwood, to create a new style, the famed ‘Bombay Blackwood’ furniture. Blackwood (also known as rosewood) was a commercial term for several dark coloured timbers. The timber is from a particular species of trees known as the dalbergia latifolia of the Malabar Coast, where it grows to an immense size.
– The amalgamation of European sensibilities and Indian craftsmanship created a new, unique style
While the designs for the Bombay Blackwood were British, the craftsmen who made them were predominantly Gujarati and Parsi immigrants from Surat and Ahmedabad. As many of them were experienced in shipbuilding, a major industry in Surat, they were also skilled carpenters. Gradually the designs acquired local flourishes. Artisans began adding Indian touches such as motifs of elephants in their carving, moving away from the predominantly floral motifs of European furniture. The Bombay Blackwood was carved in charming open filigree to the last fraction of an inch. The table-tops and flat plain surfaces were sometimes upheld by storks with their long bent necks, the chair backs and other upright surfaces were a mass of intricate filigree. The result was a style rich and opulent.
– While the designs for the Bombay Blackwood were British, the craftsmen who made them were Gujarati and Parsi immigrants
The legacy of Bombay Blackwood is intricately woven with that of the Parsi community. The furniture trade was a natural extension for this mercantile community, which had by then pioneered the ship-building trade in the Bombay Harbour. Most craftsmen, carpenters and furniture store-owners dealing in Bombay Blackwood were therefore members of the Parsi community. "Of the seven shops in Bombay selling this furniture in the mid-19th century, one, Jaffer Sulliman, was owned by a Muslim while the rest were Parsi-owned," informs Dr Louiza Rodrigues, who traced the history of Bombay Blackwood furniture for three years as part of the Avabhai fellowship awarded to her by the KR Cama Oriental Institute. Workshops producing such furniture were located in the quarter in and around Meadow Street in Bombay, The area around Meadow Street was known locally as the ‘Ingrez Bazaar’ due to the English shops nearby.
The Parsis in Bombay not only drove the trade of this furniture, but also patronised it. This was partly because the Parsis, and other well-to-do communities, such as the Pathare Prabhus, were the ones who lived in large, spacious homes essential to house Bombay Blackwood furniture, which was heavy, bulky and ornate. Peep into a Parsi family home even today, and you are likely to be come across these treasures from an era long gone by.
Two international exhibitions, one in London and another in Paris in the years 1851 and 1855 respectively, put Bombay Blackwood on the global map, according to Dr Rodrigues. "The exhibitions would go on for months, but the Bombay Blackwood furniture would sell out within a week," she says. "The demand was huge." And among those who filled the orders were people like James Procter Watson, proprietor of Watson & Co of Bombay. A thorough businessman, Watson had established dealers and agents across the country and by 1882 had a workshop from where he would supply Bombay Blackwood furniture across Europe.
– Two international exhibitions put Bombay Blackwood on the global map
But more than Watson, it was Lockwood de Forest, an American painter and designer, who single-handedly introduced the American elite, including industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, to this style of furniture. After his marriage in 1879, de Forest and his wife, Meta Kemble, spent two years honeymooning in India, collecting furniture, textiles and jewelry. It was during this sojourn that de Forest struck up an alliance with philanthropist and art connoisseur Magganbhai Hutheesing, and together they formed the Ahmedabad Wood Carving Company in 1881. Their furniture found buyers across America, and some of these pieces are today a part of the collection of the leading museums and auction houses in the US.
Such was the appeal of these intricately carved pieces that everyone from Thomas Monroe, the Governor of Madras, to a Sultan of Zanzibar and American industrialist Andrew Carnegie owned what the then newspapers described as "handsome Bombay Blackwood" furniture.
However, in the twentieth century, the furniture industry “began to decline because it got commercialised and led to high deforestation” said Rodrigues, “The aesthetics fell, and craftsmen did not pay attention to precision. Also, tastes began to change.”
As of now, under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the exportation of lumber products from wild harvested dalbergia latifolia is illegal. Although there is a high demand of timber in international markets because of its excellent qualities, rosewood is slow growing and its plantation cannot be expanded. Many once popular uses of D. latifolia wood have now been replaced with dalbergia sissoo wood and engineered rosewood for economic purposes.
Vanishing fast and hard to fit in in the changing landscape of urban Mumbai, with its condos and matchbox sized apartments, the Bombay Blackwood is now a collectors’ piece, reminiscent of a bygone era.
Cover Image: Photograph of blackwood carvers at work, taken by an unknown photographer in c. 1873, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections.