Although the basic shapes of what they made were recognizably European, the way they were decorated was definitely Indian. Early pieces were covered with carving on every available surface, sometimes in shallow relief, sometimes pierced right through. This tendency was much less pronounced in the 18th and 19th centuries, but colonial pieces were always more elaborately decorated than their European equivalents.
The other major difference was that Indian craftsmen used local materials. In the south, there was a plentiful supply of exotic hardwoods. Rich, black ebony was used as a base wood, as was calamander, which is a fine golden brown with a rich, dark grain.
India's greatest contribution to European furniture, though, was the use of rattan cane. Cane is ideally suited to the Indian climate. It is light, durable and allows the air to circulate. The majority of colonial chairs, whatever the style of the frame, have cane seats and backs. One style of chair originated in northern India in colonial times. The planter's chair, with its sloping back and adjustable swivel arms, was the last word in comfort for the owners of tea plantations, redolent of drinks on the verandah and servants with long-handled fans.
The appeal of Indian colonial furniture goes beyond its undoubted practicality. The combination of highly-carved Asian hardwoods and panels
of woven cane is both attractive in itself and strongly evocative of the relatively recent, yet very different world of colonial life captured in books such as
Passage to India and Raj
Much of the colonial furniture made in India stayed there. Quite a lot of it succumbed to the climate; any piece of wooden furniture has a fairly limited lifespan in the Tropics. Some pieces, though, were brought back by families returning from an overseas posting, and these pieces occasionally turn up today at auctions and in furniture dealers.
You're most likely to come across caned chairs, some of which are quite reasonably priced and make ideal seating for a sun room or conservatory. A planter's chair or caned rocker are particularly comfortable furniture. They can also contribute a touch of the exotic to a drawing room, or even be used in the garden, but don't leave them out in the rain.
Because it will have been exposed to the damaging effects of heat, damp and voracious, wood-chewing insects, you should be especially careful in checking over a piece of Indian colonial furniture before you buy it. Make sure that damp and warping have not loosened the joints, and check the feet for insect damage. One way that chairs were protected against such damage was to carve the feet and legs, then cover them with a skin of thin sheet silver. This was often removed before the pieces were brought back to Europe, though some signs of it may remain.
CARE AND REPAIR
Complex carving can often conceal cracks and other faults in the timber. These need not affect the value overmuch, provided the structure of the chair is sound.
The most common fault you're likely to find is worn or damaged caning. Caning can be rewoven, at a price, and it may be worth it to resurrect an otherwise faultless piece.
So named because it was typically used by the owners of tea plantations and their families, the planter's chair represents the essence of leisured ease. This one was made around 1880, though the basic design is still being followed today.
The frame is made of dowelled teak. Baluster turned front legs are carried up to support the arms. The back legs, shaped in an S-curve, are
joined by a stretcher, while the sides of the seat frame, each made of two pieces of teak, sweep up to become the back supports. The seat and back are formed from a single piece of caning, woven in a typical octagonal lattice pattern.
One of the most distinctive features of a planter's chair is the flat
arms, which have an extension which pivots through a full circle so they can be used as a rest for glasses, plates, books or even for the feet.