Historic Connections

How a furniture designer’s love for Ahmedabad helped popularise Indian crafts in the US

Lockwood de Forest set up the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company in 1881, with the objective of taking Indian designs to a discerning American clientele.

In 1855, Colonel Thomas Biggs, an army officer of the East India Company, took on a short-term appointment as the Company’s photographer. His mission: to photograph old monuments in western (and later southern) India. Biggs concentrated on Ahmedabad (an area beyond the present-day city precincts) using a technique he had learnt in London: developing photos using “post-waxed paper negatives”.

Biggs’s photographs were published in a book, titled Architecture in Ahmedabad: The Capital of Goozerut, which appeared ten years later in 1866, and is now at the British Library. The book includes photos of Palitana’s old temples, medieval shrines, such as the 16th century Sidi Saiyyed mosque, and more contemporary structures, such as the Jain temple constructed by the entrepreneur-philanthropist, Kesarisinh Hutheesing.

Biggs’s fascination with Ahmedabad’s architectural riches would be echoed a few years later by the American interior designer and landscape painter, Lockwood de Forest, when he was in the city in early 1881. De Forest’s eye was caught by the intricate stone inlay work, the minute carvings on the minarets and the wood decorations adorning most houses in Ahmedabad.

De Forest combined his aesthetic sense with a sound business head. With Maganbhai Hutheesing (Kesarisinh’s son), Lockwood de Forest set up the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company in 1881. Its objectives were to employ traditional craftsmen called mistris to copy and carve the old designs, the inlay work, the wood ornamentation and carvings on buildings, into decorative items like wall brackets, mouldings, screens and even furniture, to cater to the tastes of a discerning American clientele.

Chair designed by Lockwood de Forest. Credit: MET Museum
Chair designed by Lockwood de Forest. Credit: MET Museum

For the love of art

Lockwood de Forest was born in New York in 1850, to an old established family descended from immigrants from the Netherlands in the 17th century. His siblings, including two brothers, were to distinguish themselves not only as lawyers but as art patrons and collectors.

De Forest’s interest in the arts of the Near East was first fuelled by his uncle, Ferdinand Edwin Church, an artist influenced by his travels in the South Mediterranean and West Asia. De Forest stayed at his uncle’s estate Olana, in New York, where he had access to the library. He was also taught by his uncle for some time, though later, following his travels to Italy, Greece, Turkey and Syria in the 1870s, he would be tutored in Rome by the painter Hermann Corrodi.

There were other influences at work too. In her book on Lockwood de Forest, Roberta Mayer writes of the reaction against the century’s rapid industrialisation and mechanisation, which led to the Aesthetic Movement, with its belief in “art for art’s sake”. From the 1860s onward, the movement found adherents in Western Europe and the US.

It included critics and artists such as William Morris, Augustus William Pugin, John Ruskin and others, who, while not Luddites, bemoaned the end of the artisanal life, which was a consequence of the assembly-line production then increasingly in vogue. William Morris set up his own workshop, which favoured the artisan’s approach of bestowing unique attention and painstaking care upon every product. Morris’s trellis wallpapers with popular eastern motifs soon became popular in the US.

Credit: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 3.0]
Credit: Brooklyn Museum/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 3.0]

Marketing the East

Commensurate with this, almost as a kind of “penitent Orientalism”, there was an interest in the traditional craftsmanship of the East, especially India, championed by the likes of Lockwood Kipling, William Terry and Caspar Proudhon Clarke. The newly established South Kensington Museum in London housed several traditional Indian wares and crafts. De Forest’s aesthetic eye was drawn to Eastern craftsmanship.

Three years before, De Forest had been roped in by the designer Louis Tiffany to form part of a firm named Associated Artists in 1878. This firm sought to build on the interest in Oriental crafts by making them widely available.

It was Tiffany who, impressed with the Indian artisanal wares at London’s British Museum, urged De Forest to scout for similar items during his honeymoon in India. The search had elements of competition, since the British collector and curator Caspar Proudhon Clarke was on a similar hunt.

Despite his short trip of a few months, De Forest’s Indian sojourn left a lasting impression upon the 31-year-old. It was his popularisation of India’s unique crafts traditions in the US, especially of wood-carving – the fusion of Indian decorative elements into his own designing style, which brought De Forest considerable acclaim.

De Forest’s initial stays in Bombay were at the Byculla hotel, where as cited by Roberta Mayer in her book Furnishing the Gilded Age with a Passion for India, he picked up a knack for killing roaches with an accurately aimed slipper and registered his amazement at the numbers of crows in the city: a fact echoed by Mark Twain who visited the city 15 years later.

De Forest and his wife weren’t too impressed by the Bombay Blackwood furniture that was popular at the time. He found the designs terrible and the finish hideous. The De Forests were, however fascinated by the jewellery and fabrics favoured by the local women. Lockwood was drawn to the artistic frontispieces he observed on several houses in Byculla.

Ahmedabad’s everyday charm

Perhaps it was this that made the De Forests travel to Ahmedabad, now more accessible, as the railways ran regular services between the two cities. Here, Lockwood made the acquaintance of the city’s important government functionaries, including the deputy collector, JF Fernandez. The latter was a resourceful and conscientious official, whose work on preserving Ahmedabad’s monuments and helping the city’s many artisans and craftsmen had won him praise among peers and contemporaries.

Rani Rupamati Mosque Tomb Ahmedabad 1866. Credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons
Rani Rupamati Mosque Tomb Ahmedabad 1866. Credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

Things moved quickly for De Forest thereafter. Not only did Fernandez take him on a tour of the city, he also introduced De Forest to one of Ahmedabad’s most prominent entrepreneurs and philanthropists, Maganbhai Hutheesing. The latter came from a family which had secured its fortunes in the textile and opium trade, but was also known for its patronage, especially of a Jain temple built by Hutheesing’s father.

De Forest accompanied Fernandez and his men during the first census exercise in 1881. This gave him the pretext to look at and enter old homes without causing suspicion or inconvenience to the residents. As Mayer tells it, in the light of the oil lamps held up by Fernandez’s assistants, De Forest could see for himself the delicate and complex wood carvings, mouldings, and decorations on every column, door and house front. Later, on his tour of the city, a glimpse of its many monuments convinced him of the many promises this city with its architectural riches held.

Porch Hathising Jain Temple Ahmedabad 1866. Credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons
Porch Hathising Jain Temple Ahmedabad 1866. Credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

Some of De Forest’s photos of Ahmedabad’s houses and the other places he visited – Ajmer, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Multan, Lahore and Amritsar, would appear in a short book he wrote in 1895, titled Indian Domestic Architecture. Later, the De Forests also visited Kashmir and Nepal, but Lockwood remained unreserved in his praise for Ahmedabad. The city was architecturally rich, he wrote to his father, there was “no single magnificent building” such as the Taj Mahal, but it made up for this with the profusion of its carvings. “It had no rival for the beauty and variety of its design, and delicacy of workmanship,” he said.

Huttising's Jain Temple, Camp Road, Ahmedabad (c. 1880). Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Huttising's Jain Temple, Camp Road, Ahmedabad (c. 1880). Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Soon after that, De Forest and Hutheesing set up the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company, with capital invested by De Forest, and the mistris who set up their workshop in the compound of Hutheesing’s two-acre mansion in the city. Among the first designs that De Forest wanted carved were the two arched stone windows with their careful inlay or jaali work in the Sidi Saiyyed mosque – the finest inlay work he had seen anywhere. Next, he wanted the finely detailed work on the minarets in the mausoleums of Rani Rupamati, the wife of the Sultan Mahmud Begada (in the mid-15th century) and Rani Sipri, views that were borne out by Thomas Biggs’s earlier photos of these structures. De Forest also admired the brass plates on the doors of the tomb of Azam and Muazzam.

Rani Rupamati Mosque North Minaret Base 1866 Ahmedabad. Credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons
Rani Rupamati Mosque North Minaret Base 1866 Ahmedabad. Credit: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

As soon as the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company saw some success, with the well-coordinated partnership between the two men – De Forest invested capital and supplied the designs, while Hutheesing ensured the logistics of supply and transport of finished products – the employers gave the mistris a free hand with some of the design work.

Tomb of Rani Sipri Mosque Ahmedabad 1866. Credit: Flickr/ Wikimedia Commons
Tomb of Rani Sipri Mosque Ahmedabad 1866. Credit: Flickr/ Wikimedia Commons

De Forest would, for instance, as Mayer writes, give them specifications of length and the kind of mouldings needed, and the mistris would work their skills accordingly. The company soon moved on to making traditional Indian furniture, such as hanging chairs, wooden bedsteads, chairs, and carved screens. In an article written in 1910, for the magazine Handicraft, De Forest remained unstinting in his praise for the “ancient Indian traditions of wood-carving and techniques well preserved over the years”.

De Forest the painter

The Lockwood de Forest House at 7 East 10th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, was built in 1887 and designed by Van Campen Tayler. The house was purchased by New York University, and restored in 1995-97 by Helpern Associates. It is now the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0,3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0
The Lockwood de Forest House at 7 East 10th Street between Fifth Avenue and University Place in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, New York City, was built in 1887 and designed by Van Campen Tayler. The house was purchased by New York University, and restored in 1995-97 by Helpern Associates. It is now the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. Credit: Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-4.0,3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0

Though Associated Artists dissolved in 1882, De Forest and the Ahmedabad Woodcarving Company remained functional and successful for more than thirty years. He also incorporated Indian features in his own interior designing schemes. His house in New York, with its bay windows decorated with traditional Indian brackets and other accoutrements won praise as the “most Indian house in America”. He designed several other houses, securing influential patrons, and his last and largest work was the Dean’s house at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College.

The Deanery, Dorothy Vernon Room, Bryn Mawr College. Credit: Pritchett, Ida W/Wikimedia Commons CC-PD-Mark
The Deanery, Dorothy Vernon Room, Bryn Mawr College. Credit: Pritchett, Ida W/Wikimedia Commons CC-PD-Mark

Though he painted assiduously during his travels (as the story goes, he painted by moonlight), it was from 1910 onward that his interest in landscape painting returned in full measure. He continued designing houses, even his own house in California’s Santa Barbara, where he lived for the rest of his life till 1932. De Forest began to be described as a seacoast hermit, though it is believed, his growing deafness prompted his search for isolation.

In 2011, an exhibition of 80 of De Forest’s paintings, mainly landscapes showing his experimentation with aspects of light and colour, was organised by Sullivan Goss, an art gallery, who have made it their mission to track down De Forest’s artistic creations now dispersed among his family.

40 Days & 40 Nights: Eighty Paintings by Lockwood de Forest. Via YouTube
40 Days & 40 Nights: Eighty Paintings by Lockwood de Forest. Via YouTube
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.