When the Moroccan traveller and scholar Ibn Battuta came to Delhi to join the court of the Turkic Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq, he was struck by many things Indian – the dance and music, lavish royal meals, paan, coconut and mango, and Indian beds. “The beds in India are very light,” Battuta wrote in 1350. “A single man can carry one and every traveller should have his own bed, which his slave carries about on his head. The bed consists of four conical legs, on which four staves are laid; between they plait a sort of ribbon of silk or cotton. When you lie on it you need nothing else to render the bed sufficiently elastic.”

The singular quality of the Indian bed – the lightness that allows it to be carried on the head – impressed Battuta very much. It probably doesn’t delight Rahul Gandhi though. On Tuesday, as the Congress vice-president finished addressing his debut khaat sabha in Rudrapur, Uttar Pradesh, participants left with nearly 1,500 khaats on their heads. It was perhaps the first time that the khaat, an everyday piece of furniture found in homes and courtyards, chaupals and highway dhabas, found its way into the limelight.

The Hobson-Jobson entry for charpoy, describes it as “charpai, from Persian chihar-pai (i.e. four-feet), the common Indian bedstead, sometimes of very rude materials, but in other cases handsomely wrought and painted”.

The charpai, which is used for sleeping and doubles up as a daybed, is said to be 5,000 years old. Its exact provenance is unknown but what is certain is that multiple historical changes did not end its popularity. The ancients were fond of daybeds, which is evidenced by the different versions of it found in Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures. However, the handmade charpai, with its simple structure, is indigenous to the Indian Subcontinent.

As Indians travelled abroad, they took their humble cot with them. In the nineteenth century, when the British recruited Sikhs from Punjab for its police force in Malaysia, the charpai became a common sight on the streets of that country. It remains popular there even now. Angareeb, the traditional Sudanese bed, made of wood, leather and rope, is presumed to be a version of the charpai that travelled from India to Sudan through ancient trading ties.

Appearance in art

The charpai is among the most functional pieces of furniture ever created. It is compact, economical and portable. It has a social utility, as a meeting place for people. It does not demand space and can be folded and kept away. It is a part of everyday rituals in the lives of people, from birth to death. Childbirth often takes place on it and the term “khatiya khari karna” is derived from the practice of putting the bed upright when someone dies.

But, for all its tall history and innovation, it is among the most overlooked of objects. That is, if we leave out the times Hindi cinema has used it to peddle smut. Art too has generally ignored it, except when Amrita Sher-Gil elevated it with her 1940 painting Woman Resting on a Charpoy.

In more recent times, Priyanka Borar, a Bangalore-based artist and researcher, set out to investigate how a universal object could become so inconspicuous in its surroundings. The project titled Khaat aimed at bringing visibility to the bed as a cultural object. In her interactive installation, the khaat was put up vertically, like a mirror, and the weave took the shape of the person standing in front of it.

Credit: Priyanka Borar

For her field research, she travelled through the interiors of Gujarat and found the khaat in abundance everywhere. She also found it to be exceptionally multi-purpose. Children slept on it, and cradles with newborns were hung on it. Women used it for drying clothes and spreading spices. Men used it as a pulpit from which to interact with the community. “The khaat accommodates people’s presence,” she said. “It is both minimal and flexible. It removes formality and its structure is ideal for having a conversation.”

It is this characteristic of informality and interaction that must have inspired Prashant Kishor, the election strategist currently advising the Congress, to come up with the idea of khaat sabhas. Like chai pe charcha, it appropriates an everyday object as a political symbol. The Indian Express says that 4,000 khaats were ordered from Lucknow for the Rudrapur address and half of them were to be used in rotation at different venues. The khaats were specially woven and made of wood and jute. Which may be why they turned out to be irresistible for people at the rally. Wooden khaats are not as common now as steel and nylon have replaced the more expensive natural materials.

If it wasn’t for the looting, the khaat sabhas could perhaps have given Rahul Gandhi a fitting populist platform to help the Congress broadcast its message in Uttar Pradesh. The khaat taps into the idea of the mofussil, says PK Datta, professor of political science in Delhi University – “It is also meant as a contrast to Modi, who is built up as the suit-boot, globe-trotting prime minister, alienated from the common man.” With the Congress looking to carve out a new alliance in Uttar Pradesh, with mobilisation of Brahmins and upper castes, the khaat could have been a potent symbolic appeal to the general category of poor people in the state, Datta says. For now, it has been reduced to an internet meme.

Credit: Priyanka Borar