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
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From Indian pizzas in San Francisco to bhangra competitions in Boston

A guide to the Indian heart of these American cities.

The United States of America has for long been more than a tourist destination for Indians. With Indians making up the second largest immigrant group in the USA, North American cities have a lot to offer to the travel weary Indian tourist. There are umpteen reasons for an Indian to visit vibrant education and cultural hubs like Boston and San Francisco. But if you don’t have a well-adjusted cousin to guide you through the well-kept Indian secrets, this guide to the Indian heart of Boston and San Francisco should suffice for when you crave your fix.

Boston

If you aren’t easily spooked, Boston is the best place to be at in October due to its proximity to Salem. You can visit the Salem Witch Village to learn about present-day wiccans and authentic witchcraft, or attend séances and Halloween parades with ghosts, ghouls and other frightening creatures giving you a true glimpse of America during Halloween. But the macabre spirit soon gives way to a dazzling array of Christmas lighting for the next two months. The famed big Christmas trees are accompanied by festive celebrations and traditions. Don’t miss The Nutcracker, the sugar-laced Christmas adventure.

While it upholds its traditions, Boston is a highly inclusive and experimental university town. It welcomes scores of Indian students every year. Its inclusiveness can be gauged from the fact that Berklee College of Music released a well-received cover of AR Rahman’s Jiya Jale. The group, called the Berklee Indian Ensemble, creates compositions inspired by Indian musical styles like the Carnatic thillana and qawwali.

Boston’s Bollywood craze is quite widespread beyond the campuses too. Apple Cinemas in Cambridge and Regal Fenway Cinemas in Fenway can be your weekly fix as they screen all the major upcoming Bollywood movies. Boston tends to be the fighting ground for South Asian Showdowns in which teams from all over the North-Eastern coast gather for Bollywood-themed dance offs. The Bhangra competitions, especially, are held with the same energy and vigour as back home and are open to locals and tourists alike. If nothing else, there are always Bollywood flash mob projects you can take part in to feel proudly desi in a foreign land.

While travellers love to experiment with food, most Indian travellers will agree that they need their spice fix in the middle of any foreign trip. In that respect, Boston has enough to satisfy cravings for Indian food. North Indian cuisine is popular and widely available, but delicious South Indian fare can also be found at Udupi Bhavan. At Punjab Palace, you can dig into a typical North Indian meal while catching a Bollywood flick on one of their TVs. Head to Barbecue International for cross-continental fusion experiments, like fire-roasted Punjabi-style wings with mint and chilli sauce.

Boston is prominent on the radar of Indian parents scouting for universities abroad and the admission season especially sees a lot of prospective students and parents looking for campus tours and visits. To plan your visit, click here.

San Francisco

San Francisco is an art lover’s delight. The admission-free Trolley Dances, performed in October, focus on engaging with the communities via site-specific choreographies that reflect the city’s cultural diversity. Literature lovers can experience a Dickensian Christmas and a Victorian holiday party at The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, a month-long gala affair starting in November.

As an Indian, you’ll be spoilt for choice in San Francisco, especially with regards to food. San Francisco’s sizeable Indian population, for example, has several aces hidden up its sleeve. Take this video by Eater, which claims that the ‘Indian’ pizza at Zante’s Restaurant is the city’s best kept secret that needs outing. Desi citizens of San Francisco are big on culinary innovation, as is evident from the popularity of the food truck Curry Up Now. With a vibrant menu featuring Itsy Bitsy Naan Bits and Bunty Burrito and more, it’s not hard to see why it is a favourite among locals. Sunnyvale, with its large concentration of Indians also has quirky food on offer. If you wish to sample Veer Zaara Pizza, Dabangg Pizza or Agneepath Pizza, head to Tasty Subs & Pizza.

There are several Indian temples in Sunnyvale, Fremont and San Jose that also act as effective community spaces for gatherings. Apart from cultural events, they even hold free-for-all feasts that you can attend. A little-known haven of peace is the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. Their Anjaneya World Cafe serves delicious mango lassi; the beverage is a big hit among the local population.

If you’re looking for an Indian movie fix during your travels, the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival’s theme this year is Bollywood and Beyond. Indian film enthusiasts are in for a treat with indie projects, art-house classics, documentaries and other notable films from the subcontinent being screened.

San Francisco’s autumn has been described as ‘Indian summer’ by the locals and is another good season to consider while planning a trip. The weather lends more vigour to an already vibrant cultural scene. To plan your trip, click here.

An Indian traveller is indeed spoilt for choice in Boston and San Francisco as an Indian fix is usually available just around the corner. Offering connectivity to both these cities, Lufthansa too provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its India-bound flights and flights departing from India. You 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 internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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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.