In the middle of the dilapidated factory floor, a family of chairs sit in circular conference. Despite various stages of disrepair, these chairs with their painted frames, white plastic cane seats and backs, and synergy of proportions, betray their kinship. Pulled from a tangle of rusty green and grey metal, remnants of machines not dissimilar from the ones that produced them, they stand estranged from the tables and other office paraphernalia they were once surely teamed with, appearing tentative, lonely, and unsure.

This factory shed in Mysore in the South Indian state of Karnataka, was once a bustling unit where the iconic Yezdi and Jawa motorcycles – brands that captured the imagination of bikers across India – were manufactured. In 2004, after nearly half a century, the factory ceased production. As word of the closing spread – bike enthusiasts, scrap dealers, and other oddball collectors flocked in to rifle through the miscellany of objects that tell the history of a manufactory.

The chairs here – the CH-13 Executive Revolving Tilting Chair and the CH-7 Chair in Tubular Steel and Cane – were first manufactured in the 1930s by Godrej & Boyce. They were among the many objects produced to meet the needs of a newly-formed, independent nation – combining as it were, ‘utility with aesthetic appeal’.

The chairs, made of the new steel forged in the nation’s factories, like other furniture manufactured at Godrej & Boyce, celebrated the ‘assembly line and the drama of automation’; symbolic of a socialist idea of modernism – of the spirit of equity, economy and access.

The craftsmen in the alleyway weave new cane onto the frames of a ‘Library Chair’, designed and produced by French architect Pierre Jeanerret and Urmila Eulie Chowdhury (credited as being the first qualified woman architect from India) in the 1950s for standard issue use in Chandigarh’s public buildings.

Jeanerret worked with his cousin Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as le Corbusier, on the plan for the first ‘modern’ Indian city carved out of a rural wasteland in Punjab. While the city of Chandigarh showcases le Corbusier’s typical ‘brutalist’ style of Modernist architecture with a heavy use of exposed concrete – a ‘modern’ material not used in traditional Indian masonry – the pieces of furniture crafted by his cousin integrate the formal language of the Modernist style with local craftsmanship and, often tedious, detailing.

The chairs in the alleyway were, in all probability, sourced from scrap yards in Chandigarh where they were discarded by the city’s administration in the late 1990s, barely half a century after they were first made. Under the watchful eye of the antique shop owner, the Library Chairs are painstakingly restored before they are stamped with a certificate of authenticity by an agent from an international auction house, and eventually make their way to dealers, museums, galleries and even into celebrity homes in metropolises across the globe.

Two craftsmen weave new cane on the frames of a teak chair. | Photo credit: Sarita Sundar

The vigilant agent is at hand to ensure their authenticity is intact, that they are mended just enough; the wood surfaces are not rubbed to a shiny polish; the white paint peeling off in parts from the label is not touched up; the curious administrative code remains distressed, all proud reminders of their authenticity and their place in the bureaucratic history of Chandigarh.

Spaces such as these – abandoned factories and antique stores in back alleys – have now become the ‘digs’ of the ‘archaeology of Modernism’, either discovered by chance or resolutely disinterred by auction houses, antique dealers or personal collectors.

Can objects with a history of barely seventy years be called vintage? Antique? Collectible? What makes objects that are neither of great material value, and often not even particularly well finished by contemporary standards, enjoy such great demand after relatively shorter pasts? Why and how do even reproductions of modern masters earn and retain an ‘aura’? Is their value a consequence of their association with design, architectural and cultural history?

Three strongholds – or citadels – of modernism were born in the mid-20th century in response to a call by the state to contribute to the building of a new India. Godrej’s CH series and the Chandigarh Chairs emerged from two of the three defined in this essay – the Chandigarh Project, and factories of companies like Godrej & Boyce. Much of Modernism’s pedagogical legacy in design in India was birthed at the third – the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad.

More than half a century after it was first manufactured in 1960, the CH-13 Executive Revolving Chair, the mainstay of most public offices in India has been replaced by sleeker, lighter, swivel chairs. Yet, restored lovingly, the CH-13 finds pride of place as a work chair in the house of a designer in Goa; christened ‘The Champ’ at a high-end boutique in Mumbai; and used to make a retro style statement in trendy interiors.

Contemporary avatars appear, all within the framework of the original, with natural cane replacing the plastic; floral cushions making the seats more plush; improved castors and swivel mechanisms making for smoother movement. The cantilevered CH-4 Chair (inspired by Modernist designer Marcel Breuer’s iconic 1928 Cesca Chair) much like the CH-13, is lifted from its grey, staid, bureaucratic past by little more than a vivid coat of paint and bright upholstery in remodelled versions.

Within a few decades or so of them being in first production, the Godrej CH chairs and the Chandigarh Chairs were elevated from the realm of the public and everyday to the special and collectible – consecrated without so much as a pedigree, minor cosmetic changes transforming them from utilitarian objects to icons, from seats for mainstream office workers to occasional chairs in celebrity homes.

While the material qualities of these chairs have very little to do with their canonisation, their lineage in Modernist history, or the role they played as engineering marvels in their time was significant. What cannot be discounted is that their elevated status is in some measure contrived, a value sanctioned by mediators of style.

In moves to create a self-sufficient nation, India’s first prime minister – Jawaharlal Nehru – called out for a modernity built on a global outlook, but grounded in an Indian foundation. In response to and guided by state-driven resolve, Modernism made entry and headway in India. Industrial policies in 1949, an All India Design Council proposed by MARG (the first magazine of the arts in India) in 1952, and four watershed exhibitions, were among various efforts critical to the reciprocal flow of cultural knowledge with the West, marking the entry of a global modernism into the confused, often colliding, melee of vernacular and colonial expressions in India.

Modernism followed many trajectories in India – divergent and contradictory, sometimes parallel, often times intersecting. Of these, the counter vision of modernity adopted by Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan near Calcutta is significant. Founded in 1919, it defied the cultural essentialism typified by Western Modernism to establish a firm grounding and belief in India’s rich cultural resources, while simultaneously seeking an intensive exchange with Western knowledge. Referred to as ‘contextual modernism’ by art historian R Siva Kumar, Tagore’s ideas of Modernism had humanism at their core, and the university promoted a form of regional Modernism—separate and distinct from the universalising form that would, in another three decades, be adopted as national agenda.

Tagore saw an affinity in the Bauhausian appreciation of craftsmanship and the Indian tradition; he did, however, perceive intrinsic issues with Western Modernism that linked progress to materialism with a skewed emphasis on technology – a concern echoed in Mulk Raj Anand’s editorial in the June 1967 issue of the MARG magazine.

Four exhibitions heralded modernism into India. The ‘14th Annual Exhibition of the Indian Society of Oriental Art’ held in Kolkata in 1922 – with participating Bauhaus and Indian artists – was the first of the exhibitions to begin conversations around Modernism in India and was a direct outcome of Tagore’s interactions in Europe after he had been conferred the Nobel Prize.

The show, curated by Stella Kamrisch, the Austrian art historian, was seen as a confluence of ‘Western Modernism searching for spiritual and artistic renewal after the First World War, and Indian artists striving for cultural emancipation in late colonial India’. Ironically, by the 1930s, the Bauhaus school, along with forced changes in venues due to political pressure, did an about turn – moving away from its enamourment with the hand-crafted – to embrace a machine aesthetic.

While the interiors and customs maintained in European homes in India had helped project imperial power through the years of colonial rule, by the late 19thcentury, many middle class Indian homes in urban centres such as Bombay and Calcutta were increasingly becoming westernised. The Army and Navy Catalogue and other such publications that offered advice and directives to British residents, were also consumed by Indians who aspired to project themselves as suitably westernised.

However, by the early 20th century, and in response to years of colonial dominion, a significant majority of socially elevated, urban Indians sought a fresh modernity – a clean shift from all things past. And so, all the way across the country from Calcutta, in Bombay on the west coast of India, when the Indian Institute of Architects organised the ‘Ideal Home Exhibition’ in 1937, displaying ideal, modern homes – as many as one hundred thousand visitors attended.

On display were products including accessories, furniture, and building materials – all projecting a newly-imported austere aesthetic, a way to modernise homes with minimal resources. The modern was now firmly established as essentially Western – as opposed to the traditional, national, or local.

Excerpted with permission from From the Frugal to the Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India, Sarita Sundar, Godrej.