A vision of India through 100 objects

To what extent can a nation's identity be defined by the objects that circulate within it? A new book charts the A to Z of everyday objects that could be said to define India…

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Everyday objects carry the weight of history and identity passed down through generations. When one smartly designed object is reproduced on mass proportions, coming to form a part of everyday life for millions of people, it has the power to promulgate the stories of a particular culture, identity or collective behaviour across societies of vast sizes and geographical locations. 

For Jahnvi Lakhota Nandan, it was her training in design and architecture that opened the most appealing route for an exploration of this subject. “Design is a mirror of our attitudes and habits. Through the course of writing this book on Indian design I found that uniquely Indian gestures like churning, combing and calculating were reflected in it.”

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Nandan’s new book, featuring photography by Shivani Gupta, takes us on an alphabetically ordered journey of discovery through the objects that have shaped India - a rich mosaic of items that assemble a picture of a nation steeped in innovation, vision and creativity. 

Iconic items of furniture showcased in the book include the Godrej CH-4, India’s first modernist office chair, groundbreaking in its cantilevered one-piece frame as well as its innovative use of steel. “Everyone has seen or sat on the tubular Godrej chair,” says, Nandan, “in fact now they are a collectors’ favourite. Godrej started making these CH-4 chairs in the 1950s because steel was subsidised by the Indian government to encourage manufacturing.”

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The murha (bamboo stool) and planters chair (lazy lounger) are among the other pieces of furniture featured, while other interior design items include chiks - the bamboo window blinds that delicately filter sunlight - and the razais - the colourful cotton quilts from Jaipur.

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Clothing is another major component of the book, with a range of iconic fashion trends showcased, from the dhoti - the single 4.5m piece of cloth draped, mainly by men, around the lower part of the body in a protective sheath - to the dupatta - the light, multipurpose stole worn mainly by women over the shoulders or head.

We learn that the sharply cut bandhgala jacket, featuring its signature high, closed collar, emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries as a fusion of Indian and Western fashion for men; and that the kohlapuri chapal could be considered the world’s cheapest and most popular recycled footwear, originating from the Chamaar community in western India in the 1970s, before gradually coming to gain iconic fashion status in Europe and the US.

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Instantly recognisable kitchen objects also feature in the book. “These products evoke daily life at its most painterly and include the simple pleasures of everyday that are telling of an Indian attitude towards things,” says Nandan.

We learn about the kulhad, the stout clay cup used to drink hot tea, which at once epitomises the simplest form of pottery as well as highly sophisticated sustainable design that dates back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Other items related to food and drink include the chula - an earthen stove used for cooking - and the dabba - the stacked stainless steel lunch boxes that carry millions of meals from homes to offices every day.

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“Where these hundred objects truly reflect Indian design,” says Nandan, “is in the fact that they are a combination of the straight lines of rationality, mathematics and weaving and the curved lines found in natural forms and the human body. The choice has never been for one or the other but for both together.”

Clove editors