TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEERAJA SRINIVASAN
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
At the centre of the hall, right in front of the entrance to our house lies a teak wood, lacquered three-piece sofa set that holds intricate history and countless memories within it. Over the years, it has undergone little to no alterations other than re-knitting of the golden plastic wires that form its back rest, and is now cushioned with beautiful royal maroon fabric. The set comprises one large double seater (120cm in breadth and 80cm in height) and is accompanied by two smaller single seaters (60cm in breadth and 80cm in height.) It is crafted like a lot of other traditional minimalistic South-Indian style furniture, using natural teakwood to showcase simplicity in elegance. The surface is glossy since we polish it with resin quite frequently. During balmy summer mornings, sunlight softly bouncing off the shiny layers of the sofa give the room lovely natural glow and add to its aesthetics.
It was bought by my great-grandfather, Dr. R. Krishnaswami in the late 1940s, right towards the end of the freedom struggle in Madras. My grandmother, who must have been seven or eight years old at the time, remembers accompanying her father on a walk to Mount Road, then home to various furniture stores and now, famous for its antique buildings and rich archives. It was purchased for 175 rupees, a price considered extremely high for that time period, given the socio-economic conditions of the country post-Partition. The sofa was picked by my great-grandfather because it was easy to clean and due to its lack of crevices, where dust could potentially gather. He was a man who adhered to the Gandhinian principles of simple living and high thinking, further believing that cleanliness and orderliness were of the greatest virtue. My Paati, Dr. Vimala Rajappa enforced these ideals as she brought up her three sons, and my father continues the legacy by frequently telling me, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
My great-grandfather was born in Bellary, Karnataka on October 24th, 1914. He was certainly a man ahead of his times and firmly believed in the philosophy of universal brotherhood or ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, embedded in him during his time at the Theosophical Society. He was arrested by the police twice during the struggle against colonialism – as part of the Swadeshi Movement as well as during the Salt Satyagraha, along with C. Rajagopalachari. During a game of hockey, he suffered a tragic accident and was hit in the eye with a hockey ball which led to him losing all function in his right eye. By the time my grandmother was 11 years old, he had lost sight in both his eyes.
At the heart of the household and all the weddings, birthdays or festivals that took place in it, was this sofa set. My grandmother sweetly reminisces on how she used to sit on the floor, as her father sat on the sofa, listening as she read out the daily news or novels by PG Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Wilky Collins, and Bernard Shaw. This sofa set was also witness to the iconic 24-hour music festivals or ‘katcheris’ that my great-grandfather used to host and continued to do so for almost 60 years in their house on Vellala Street, Purasawalkam. He was a disciple of Araikudi Ramanujar Iyengar and trained in carnatic music, in addition to being able to play the flute, kanjira and mridangam very well. Sri. Thyagaraja, who was part of what is now considered the Holy Trinity of carnatic music, was his idol. Thus, music was always radiating through the walls of the house, and artists would often pour in and out of the door to participate in the frequent concerts.
The sofa set was not occupied during a majority of these concerts though, for as per tradition in carnatic music, the singers would sit on the floor as they sang to the deities arranged in front of them. MS Subulakshmi, Sadasivam who was husband to MS, Dr. Rukmini Devi Arundale, ML Vasanthakumari and D.K. Pattammal were some of the famous singers who often came home to learn rare compositions of Sri. Thyagaraja from my great-grandfather. During gatherings, the sofa was reserved for visitors who were always served coffee, buttermilk and other delicacies such as adhirasam (sweet, doughnut like pastry), Mysore paagu (soft cake made of ghee and sugar), murukku (savoury snack prepared with fried lentil flour, moulded in the shape of twisters) and thattai (crispy rice crackers), prepared by my great-grandmother Jayalakshmi, while members of the family sat on chairs borrowed from the dining table. The faintest hints of coffee mug rings can still be observed on the handles of the sofa, if you pay close attention.
Post-marriage, Paati moved to Madurai and took the sofa set along with her. It spent many long years in the various houses that her large, joint family lived in, always finding place right in the centre. The sofa, along with the family, was living in a house in Chokkikulam, Madurai when my father, third son to my grandmother was born in 1974. Appa and his brothers grew up around it, the same way their mother did. After marrying my mother, he inherited the sofa set from Paati in 2001 and it made its way back to Chennai. My mother, who was a newly-wed at the time, recollects memories of her taking short afternoon naps and watching Tamil soaps on television while relaxing on the sofa after returning home from intense medical examinations.
Just like Appa and Paati before him, I also have a little bit of an emotional attachment to this sofa set. In my grandmother’s words, “It was sort of a part of everything that took place in the household – the good, bad, happy, sad.” As I sit on the sofa whilst writing this, I think about how on happy days, it provided us with memories that last not just a lifetime, but longer and on sad days, it served as a comforting hug when everything seemed to be wrong with the world.