Indian Furniture has undergone eras of changes and has evolved with an engrossing blend of cultures and regions from all over the world. The furniture styles in India are a great example of how the diverse artistic styles blended together with foreign influences and translated into unique work.
Although furniture has never been a part of India’s tradition, today Indian furniture is best known for its durability and detailing. This does not mean that its forms were not known to our ancestors. Some reference of Pidha, Khaata, Mundas etc. have been known to exist in Vedic texts. But because they were not in common use, it never became popular in those days.
Very few cultures in early India were into furniture construction. This skill was at its prime-time during the fourteenth-century Vijayanagar Empire in Southern India. Wood craftsmen then were highly respected by the royalty. The furniture was primarily ceremonial, like royal thrones, doors and pillars for palaces etc. Most people didn’t have furniture in their homes. Except for a few low chairs, cushions, dhurries and bolsters used for assistance, they generally sat on the floor, even slept and ate on the floor, which is integral to the lifestyles of many Indians even today.
The furniture we know today, was developed from foreign influence.
In 1498 Portuguese came to India for trade, with their headquarters in Southern India. Hence, Southern India sees Portuguese style with large cabinets and intricate carvings.
Mughals arrived in Northern India around mid-16th Century, bringing along their influence in furniture. Writing desks and tables etc. with decorations of inlaid bone or ivory and use of dark wood and mirrors are the prominent in North India.
A succession of European powers followed and they were amazed by the absence of furniture, which they were used to in their home countries. So, they used Indian craftsmen to produce furniture using European styles and Indian materials. Thus, the furniture evolved with a fusion of European styles and Indian culture. Indian carpenters designed distinguishing furniture with embellished features using their skills.
In some parts of Rajasthan and Gujarat colourful painting on furniture is quite common. Traditional designs and motifs are painted in traditional colours.
Most furniture was made out of expensive woods, which was abundantly available material in India at that time. Types of woods included many hardwoods like Indian rosewood, teak, acacia, ebony and sheesham. Some other unique materials included ivory from elephant tusks, leathers and animal skins from the wild which are now banned in most parts of the world.
In the 18th Century the influence of Britishers was predominant resulting in furniture with English styling and use of teak. 19th Century brought along ornamentation in furniture. The trend then moved to simple and utilitarian furniture in the 20th Century, as it was cheaper compared to the ornamentations. In this century, the furniture also saw the use of cheaper quality of wood. Although, moving to the 21st Century, the luxury lifestyle furniture such as charpoys (string beds), almaris (cupboards), jhulas (swings), ornamentation and old fashioned round tables is making a comeback.