On my commute, biking through Amsterdam’s Spiegelkwartier – jewellery atelier, antiques dealer, curios shop – I skid to a halt. Through an art gallery window is the chair my grandfather sat in.
Where once he sat, his hand pinching a beedi, there is nothing. The man was removed. The object was vacated. And so elevated into art.
For this is a Pierre Jeanneret chair. The Swiss architect, in the 1950s and 60s, oversaw its conception and construction in India. After Partition in 1947, Punjab’s capital, Lahore, was in Pakistan. Hence the need for a regional capital, and to showcase India’s modernity. With his cousin, Le Corbusier, Jeanneret helped shepherd Chandigarh into existence.
Jeanneret was collaborative, his design process distributed. The contrast, with his cousin, was both temperamental and political. During the Second World War, Le Corbusier eagerly cultivated France’s pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Jeanneret joined the French resistance.
Le Corbusier dealt with Chandigarh at arm’s length, sending diktats from abroad. Jeanneret lived there for a decade-and-a-half, mediating turf battles between engineers, officials, and workers. Le Corbusier idealised the abstract and the built. Jeanneret was immersed in the indefinite activity of building.
As the city’s modernist façade neared completion, Jeanneret turned his attention to interiors. Chandigarh was to be an administrative, scientific, and political centre. State buildings – libraries, court houses, secretariats – needed furniture.
Jeanneret gave local architects and craftsmen latitude to tinker. He didn’t copyright designs. Teak was shaved into V-legs, and cane woven into supports. Cotton rope was webbed, straw was plaited, and jute cross-hatched. In this way, thousands of objects, made by many hands, were inserted into public office.
The resulting emporia – sofas, armchairs, benches, conference tables, desks, bookshelves, cupboards, file racks, stools – became Chandigarh’s interior infrastructure.
Such furnishings went to Panjab University, where my grandfather was an administrator. In Chandigarh, he resumed a career from the university’s original iteration, in Lahore. He worked at one institution his whole life. That one institution spanned the temporal distance from the colonial to postcolonial, and the political distance between Pakistan and India.
Lahore’s University of the Punjab was a scholastic hub in the early 20th century. It produced a wide swathe of north India’s elite, and Nobel Prize winners Abdus Salam and Hargobind Khurana. It was there that my grandfather learned the secret arts of administration. He handled confidential registrar matters.
This phase of his life abruptly ended with Partition in 1947. Like millions of other Punjabis, he came across a hitherto illusory line, India’s new national border. He towed, among others, my three-year-old father. They endured the terror of scorched villages and mass killings. Among my father’s first memories are dead bodies on railway tracks.
The family bounced for years between Delhi and Solan, where the university’s Indian administration was rehoused. Friends, colleagues, cousins from their former life, concentrated in Lahore, were now scattered across states. Only in 1958 did they move to Chandigarh: the concrete city of cantilevered buildings.
Family lore has it that my grandfather was incorruptible. Privy to commodifiable exams and posts, he was not transactional, and said to refuse bribes.
In this, family and public myth merged. Chandigarh, and its citizenry, were self-conscious from the get-go, of the same imaginative mould. It was hard not to be, given Jawaharlal Nehru’s boast, of Chandigarh as “unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”.
Modern and scientific and sincere: both people and place were Nehru’s children. Chandigarh’s geometrical layout was all right angles and uniform vistas. And functionality and modularity went beyond urban precepts.
They were life principles. One after another, my grandfather’s children dutifully garnered advanced degrees. They became experts in strengthening textiles, organising libraries, and binding molecules. As rectilinear as the grids separating Chandigarh’s Sectors.
Jeanneret’s furniture miniaturises, and interiorises, this urban and personal aesthetic. His chairs are blunt and spartan, in spirit and form straight-backed. His teak and braided canework chair, devoid of ornate, antique trappings, sits oddly in Amsterdam’s Spiegelkwartier.
Jeanneret did not intend his public-minded fixtures to end up in Europe. He would not have imagined them browsed with Delft tiles and African statuary. His objects made for everyday tasks were inverted: into refined emblems of inactivity.
In the Amsterdam gallery, I take in the Jeanneret chair, raised on a pedestal under soft lighting. A sign and barrier indicate that one should not touch. It is to be visually appreciated from a distance. Not handled, felt, or dwelt within.
As a child, I visited Chandigarh from abroad on school vacations. My orbit was the university, in Sector 14, where my father’s family moved after Solan, and neighbouring Sector 15, where my grandfather bought a plot and later built a home.
Jeanneret designed the university, including its Administration Building, in which my grandfather worked. His furniture was also pervasive in university and staff quarters. My grandfather’s cadre typed on Jeanneret desks, and in Sector 14’s officer flats, lounged on Jeanneret armchairs.
I puzzled over the lettered encumbrances to surnames fronting homes: the code of M.B.B.S and P.Eng and B.D.S. They indicated, beyond university functionaries, the civil class of the city: doctors and engineers and dentists. On these holidays, I read constantly, refreshing my books at Lyall and Atma Ram & Sons depots.
But I was more interested in roadside lending libraries, doubling as STD / ISD booths, for old Archie comics. In the Tibetan refugees, serving momos in aluminium cylinders on the back of Hero bicycles. In the sprawling second-hand book market, at the edge of the university and Sector 15, my introduction to desi lust: old Debonair issues, their female centrefolds, to my teenage eyes, needlessly coy.
My uncles and aunts took me to the Verka Milk Bar. I chose novelties: milk flavoured with badam, or more unnervingly, elaichi. Then to the Dragon restaurant, a luridly red, toothy monster painted on the entrance, to eat veg manchurian and chilly paneer.
On one of these Sector 14-15 navigations, I was taken to visit my grandfather at work. He had a lifelong habit of smoking beedis: a furious plume of smoke always rose above him. I was fascinated with these thin, brown appendages to his hand.
Along with chewing neem branches, in lieu of toothbrushing, this confirmed my view that he belonged to another world, another time. I came from abroad: the synthetic and prefabricated was what comprised the contemporary. The wooden and webbed chair he sat in seemed, like him, from the land of before.
My grandfather sits under a tube-light, amidst folder stacks. The room accumulates with smoke, as peons fetch steel tumblers of water and chai. There are people at several typewriters around us.
He never says anything in my memory, does not register my presence. Taciturn, he seemed an edifice, not a person. Something long-lasting that need not disclose what is within.
Jeanneret’s Chandigarh articles have found their way to Christie’s auctions and Kardashian homes. This trajectory seems, at first glance, neo-colonial. The unknown workers in Chandigarh who handmade these objects are forgotten. Renown lies in intangible Swiss design, not concrete Indian craft.
And Jeanneret’s chairs typify predatory capitalism everywhere. Brokers who hype scarcity and co-opt supply get the profit. A kind of raw material from the global south, their value accrues exponentially as they circulate abroad.
But we can accommodate other readings as well. For me, Jeanneret’s furniture, and my family’s story, is a story of revaluation. Here, beyond analysis of winners and victims, is the inevitable process of defining anew.
For objects, like people, can undergo reappraisal, to find fertile ground. In this process, things, like individuals, are detachable, spurning where they were meant to be.
Like my own family did. Chandigarh was the paradigmatic emblem of postcolonial commitment. New nation, new people, yoked together for national development.
Yet by the 1970s, when my parents and their siblings came of age, they revaluated their prospects. Like the restorers and auctioneers who traffic in Jeanneret chairs. In both cases, an assessment of worth meant uprooting from the Swiss city at Sukhna Lake. Value came to reside not in place but in movement from place.
So it is that my grandfather’s children, one after another, left. For expatriate gigs in East Africa and the Gulf. Then careers in England, Canada, and America. India’s least Indian city generated restless things and a nomadic class. Chandigarh’s products now orbit the world, eschewing local commitment: portable for the right price.
It is only in my mind’s eye that my grandfather, after the travails of Partition, of raising six children, sits still. In his Jeanneret chair, in Jeanneret’s building. Inscrutable, as a man entrusted with confidential matters must be. Both chair and man are gone. Just artifacts to a discerning few.
Ajay Gandhi is a faculty member at Leiden University and Senior Fellow at the Maria Sibylla Merian Centre Conviviality-Inequality in Latin America