From Kottayam to Kolkata, on the trail of the planter’s chair - Hindustan Times
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From Kottayam to Kolkata, on the trail of the planter’s chair

By, New Delhi
May 29, 2024 12:55 PM IST

Sarita Sundar and Rachel Lee’s research project is unearthing new insights into the life and times of a chair that was synonymous with the colonial lifestyle.

The Chicken Country Captain was an intrepid traveller. Believed to have been created sometime in the 1800s in the subcontinent, the dish of browned, curried chicken travelled the world on colonial trading ships. It was served on sea-faring vessels that sailed out of Canton; it was spotted in the West Indies, and, on crossing the Atlantic and hitting Charleston, it became a bonafide culinary icon of the American South, and eventually a favourite of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Sarita Sundar and Rachel Lee check out planter's chairs at an antique store in Kochi. (Crafters, Kochi)
Sarita Sundar and Rachel Lee check out planter's chairs at an antique store in Kochi. (Crafters, Kochi)

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Did the planter’s chair, another colonial invention, follow a similar trajectory, as it transcended its campaign furniture origins and settled down in sun-splashed verandahs across the British Empire? Sarita Sundar and Rachel Lee have been following the trail of the planter’s chair since last year as part of a Dutch Research Council-funded research project. By the time they get done this August, the duo expects to have a more cohesive backstory of an object, which, despite its dark colonial past, continues to be an enduring presence in contemporary South and Southeast Asia and elsewhere.

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Sarita Sundar and Rachel Lee have been following the trail of the planter’s chair since last year as part of a Dutch Research Council-funded research project. (Karan Choudhury)
Sarita Sundar and Rachel Lee have been following the trail of the planter’s chair since last year as part of a Dutch Research Council-funded research project. (Karan Choudhury)

Sundar is a designer and design historian, and the author of From the Frugal to the Ornate: Stories of the Seat in India, while Lee, an architect and architectural historian, teaches at TU Delft, Netherlands. The reason they chose the planter’s chair as the subject of their research is because there is nothing quite like it. This was a chair that captured the imagination across geographies, from India and Africa to the West Indies, says Sundar.

“No other chair exists in a very similar form across the world other than the classic four-legged chair, and no other chair revealed the hierarchies and gender disparities that existed in practices of comfort during the British colonial period as the planter’s chair,” she says.

Characterised by a low seat, reclining back, and extended armrests that work as footrests, the chair is thought to have entered India along with the British as part of their campaign furniture. Alexander W Phillips’s 1851 series of four paintings on boar hunting by British officers in India provides the earliest known depictions. An early photograph, of a lounging sahib, one leg up on the chair’s armrest, fanned, and attended to, by natives, is particularly revealing about colonial power dynamics. Created for use in male-dominated environments, the chair was also gender-specific. It was considered indecorous for women to use them. “I would only use it when my husband was travelling,” said a woman the researchers met in Kottayam.

By the first decade of the 20th century, the chair, listed under Barrack and Camp Equipment in the 1907 Army and Navy Catalogue, was part of every British colonial household. It acquired the risque moniker of the ‘Bombay Fornicator’, was on the cover of George Orwell’s Burmese Days, and in grand residences in several parts of the world. Over a century later, the chair’s ability to evoke the supposed romance of colonialism, and the steady demand for it, hasn’t waned.

During the course of their travels for the project, documented @planters_chair on Instagram, Lee and Sundar have tracked down the planter’s chair at an auction conducted by Murrays, Chennai’s oldest auction house; at the Malayala Manorama office in Kottayam; in homes in South Mumbai and at furniture prop shops and residences in Kolkata. In Singapore, at a colonial antique store, they admired an Indian rosewood example (SGD $2,350 ( 1.4 lakh)), and at the Wereldmuseum in Amsterdam, Lee came across two fine specimens owned by a Dutch colonial civil servant stationed in Java nearly a century ago.

Lee says that while the planter’s chair has often been written about as a colonial chair, it appears in all sorts of different contexts. “I found one that (B R) Ambedkar owned and sat on and read on, and I thought Amedkar wouldn’t have embraced it if ‘colonial’ was the only way it was understood,” she says.

Planter’s chairs in Kolkata are massive, compared with the ones in Kerala or Goa, which are more curvy, says Lee. “We are looking at how the chair has been decolonised and looking at regional variations. And trying to understand why people still keep this chair,” says Lee. Among the many people who have contacted them on social media is a lady who has fond memories of sitting on a planter’s chair as a child at a tea plantation in Darjeeling where her uncle worked as manager. She recently went ahead and acquired one. Despite its size, says Sundar, there still seems to be a draw or some sort of a nostalgia built into this chair that makes people who may not have inherited it still go out and look for it.

While no one really knows when it was first assembled, or where, Sundar and Lee have stumbled upon a tenuous, but delicious and wholly unanticipated, Chinese connection to the planter’s chair. “There is a different theory about the origin of the chair, and it’s that the planter’s chair is not a British chair but could be a Chinese one. There are some images of Chinese chairs that do have extended arm rests and leg rests, so it’s a nice theory that complicates the picture,” says Lee. Sundar adds that both Bombay and Calcutta played host to settlements of Chinese carpenters during the 19th century. “So technically that could have been a route. On the other hand, a lot of the early campaign furniture and the furniture that came in with the entry of Europeans was foldable. But when the Europeans started becoming more settled, the chairs, kind of, stabilised. They retained the same form but were not foldable.”

Nearly 200 years after it first appeared on the colonial landscape, the planter’s chair, which has outlasted classic British furniture such as Chippendale, Sheraton, and Hepplewhite, continues to be reinterpreted. Instead of teak or rosewood, Pune-based product designer Nikita Bhate’s Ayama lounge chair references the joinery detail of Gujarat’s Sankheda furniture. Made of reclaimed wood and a lot smaller, it is a plantation chair for a new age in which its users are short both on space and time.

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