South Asian attitudes towards furniture

jkirk jkirk at SPRO.NET
Fri Aug 10 19:58:04 UTC 2007

I was walking on Capitol Hill and passing by a house which I had earlier
noted was occupied by South Asians (it was noteworthy for having banana
trees outside it every summer).  There was a big container and a moving crew
in front of it, moving out contemporary and very undistinguished not to say
crummy furniture.  I got in a chat with the movers and they said the family
was returning to India.  I remarked that it would be much cheaper to buy new
furniture in India, and of a much better quality, than to ship it back.
They remarked that they had thought that too, but please not to tell the

I have not gotten the impression hitherto that South Asians are particularly
attached to particular pieces of furniture.  I've read that French and
Italians traditionally think it's against family piety to let loose of any
piece of inherited furniture, however inconvenient or out of fashion.  I
think American Southerners often have a similar attitude.  But in any case
this was things like beanbag chairs, which almost certainly weren't
inherited from Great Granddad.  Does spending thousands to ship back
recently acquired and undistinguished furnishings fit into any South Asian
pattern anyone's observed?

Allen W. Thrasher, Ph.D., Senior Reference Librarian South Asia Team, Asian
Division Library of Congress, Jefferson Building 150
Well, I suspect that their move back to India was being paid for by an
employer, and so they figured OK--send it back and flog it there. 

One of the reasons family furniture-piety did not develop in India might be
because of the insects and the climate, both of which are extremely hard on
anything made of wood. Metal items--brass murtis and the like-- would be
preserved, but they are also heavy and hard to move and if you are a
government servant your posting might be changed from time to time. In
Ludhiana, Panjab, a rich family I knew kept beautiful old brass utensils in
the house, including one in the room for bathing --this latter item was
gigantic--it seemed to be 4 feet in diameter--must have held a ton of water.
Sikh villagers also kept copper and brass utensils as décor, lined up on a
high shelf, probably no longer used.

Middle and upper class women I knew or came across did tend to preserve
heirloom fabrics--saris, shawls, quilts.  Also, they held on to family
heirloom gold and jewlery of all kinds--gold being the most lasting of any
furnishing and a reserve bank account, so to speak.

I spent a lot of time in Bangladesh from the mid-seventies on, and noticed
that middle class homes or apartments there usually had a glass-windowed
wooden cabinet where they kept trinkets and souvenirs, or in some instances,
books loaded up with DDT, in hope that the termites couldn't get to them.
These and I suspect other noxious insects are so prevalent, plus the extreme
climate-- are such a bother-- that it was logical for Indians (I guess
before globalization came on the scene) not to make a presentation of self
point of home furnishings (exception being people who admired foreign
culture and ideas--like Nirad Chaudhury, for example).

Joanna Kirkpatrick
Bennington college, ret.

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