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Indian Furniture: History & Styles

Discover the history and styles of Indian furniture, meaning furniture produced and used in India. Explore the Indo-European, Mughal, Goanese, and Indo-Dutch styles of Indian furniture, including the characteristics of each style and materials used.

History of Indian Furniture
What kind of furniture do you have? Is it a mix of styles and influences? The furniture made and used in India is an excellent example of the blending of various artistic styles into unique work.

India is a large country on the Asian continent, full of diverse peoples and cultural traditions, but one thing many of these cultures didn’t place much emphasis on historically was furniture. For much of India’s history, people didn’t use a lot of furniture in their homes. A few cultures in early India did have furniture-making traditions, like the 14th-century Vijayanagar Empire in Southern India, but the furniture was mostly ceremonial, like royal thrones. Most people in India didn’t have what we would consider furniture, things like tables, desks, dressers, and chairs. With the exception of perhaps a few low chairs and cushions used for support, they usually sat on the floor, even sleeping and eating on the floor.

Beginning around the 1500s, a series of European powers invaded and conquered parts of India. The first was Portugal, followed by France in the late 1600s, then the Dutch, and finally the English in the 18th century. People came and settled and built homes and businesses. These settlers wanted furniture similar to what they knew from their home countries, so these Europeans used Indian carpenters to develop furniture using European styles and Indian materials. The result was furniture that reflected a mix of Europe and India. Indian craftsmen created distinctive furniture with very decorative qualities using their skills in woodcarving and inlay, which is the process of creating patterns on wood surfaces with small pieces of precious materials cut and placed so they lay flush, creating a smooth, flat surface.

Most furniture was made of wood, a plentiful material in India. Types of woods included many excellent hardwoods like rosewood, teak, acacia, ebony, and shisham (also sometimes called North Indian rosewood and native to the Himalayas). Other materials included exotic substances like ivory from elephant tusks.

Indian Furniture: Styles
As a result of the nation’s history, Indian furniture styles are a mix of those from the East and West, often called Indo-European furniture. There are several types of Indo-European furniture, reflecting either Portuguese or Dutch influence.

Portuguese-influenced styles included the Mughal Style, found in Northern Indian. Mughal style featured furniture like tables and writing desks made of dark hardwoods like ebony with decorations of inlaid bone or ivory. To the south, the Portuguese-influenced Goanese Style included furniture like large cabinets, adapted from traditional Portuguese forms, with intricate inlaid and incised (cut into the wood) geometric decorations.

Furniture made in the Indo-Dutch Style included light-colored hardwoods with incised and inlaid decorations. Another style, used in India but made mostly on the island of Java (also colonized by the Dutch), featured furniture made of dark woods like ebony with elaborate carved floral decorations.

The furniture industry in India evolved with the departure of the British and furniture is now essential to the lifestyles of most people in India. Ornamentation and wood varieties have changed, mostly because of price considerations. Furniture today not only needs to be pretty but versatile too, fitting the smaller homes and simpler lifestyles of busy families. The influences are still mostly European, but modern furniture stores in delhi continue to add their special touch.

However, there is still a market for niche buyers who want the older styles and there are still craftsmen who produce items in these styles or are experts at preserving existing pieces. Rajasthan, the state with its beautiful palaces is where many travellers to India who want to admire craftsmen who still make traditional Indian pieces.

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