The “British” India style comes from the time the British empire ruled India as a province and as such reflects both the rich English love of woods and heavy Victorian draperies, and British east Indian Victorian decor with fine art, along with typical Indian motifs and materials such as ivory and reed.
Extensive workmanship done in cheaper but beautiful materials and woods, and intricate designs in cloth, draperies and rugs. The mixture of the ‘old’ world in England and the new influences of Indian culture mixed to form a unique and beautiful feeling from the viewer that is quite unlike either style on its own but a fusion of the best and most elegant that each has to offer.
In many ways the rich almost opulent furnishings that make up the base for the British India style is not completely surprising since the elite classes of British colonials who dominated India were primarily the rich and were known for their sophisticated and discerning tastes.
What is perhaps surprising to some is the jumble of inexpensive and sometimes even cheap materials and artwork that accents these pieces or that was used for practical purposes that now appear quaint or even outright strange – such as the placing of a bed’s posts into bowls: a practice that was necessary to prevent crawling insects such as ants from making themselves at home.
Due to the unique problems and customs of India a rather eclectic mix of new and old, British and Indian pieces rapidly became the norm with many homes assuming at least to some degree the feeling of a high-end second-hand curio stop or antique display warehouse with every piece reflecting some of the history and personal details of the owner and their tastes. Some things now purely decorative such as the silk hangings around beds were necessary at the time to reduce the insect bites and discomfort of a steamy and bug laden night far away from the familiar cooler British Isles.
Often referred to as “Anglo-Indian” furniture the hybrid nature of furniture made in India for British colonials – featuring typical western functionality and structure with an Indian execution they have often been overlooked as a unique type or style until recently when one Amin Jaffer published an essay dealing with life in British India and commented on the fact that so many unique styles and pieces have been overlooked as art and classes unto themselves due to the very nature of their cross-pollination making them hard to classify as either existing style.
Chairs were typically seen as status symbols of British rule – since the typical Indian interior had no use for them, all business being conducted at the floor level so of course a British subject ‘ruling’ above Indians was an obvious status indicator that crosses culturally and caused many Indian lords and rajas to begin using thrones.
The early governing body of India was “The East India Company” which was largely taken over in 1773 by the British government. To this date furniture and curio shops use the ‘East India’ term to describe many British Indian style objects and decorative items.
Due to the fact that trade and then British government drove most relations of western culture to its Indian subjects it is no surprise that a somewhat officious feeling to major pieces and room design in British homes was the core of what has now become to be known as the “British India” style – with heavy wood walls and thick strong tables and chairs the power and nature of British rule was made clear, while the best of Indian culture and art was reflected in the smallest of details such as handmade wood carvings and statues, or intricate glass works done in British Victorian styles with typically Indian trademarks. It was not unusual to see unique sculptures made from scraps show up as ‘treasures’ then just as now and this in fact became a large part of the style.
Another feature of the British India style that has now become synonymous with it is the use of chests and elephant statues and carvings as decoration. A room done in the British India style would not be complete with wooden chests, possibly iron-bound or with intricate carvings and unique woodwork – nor would it be true to the design if no ivory, draperies or throw rugs were to be seen.
Just as in the west decorative pillows and throws were popular but the style was often more Indian in nature then Victorian as it made no sense to import items that could be purchased locally far more cheaply just to see more familiar patterns in the fabric.
Elegant with several ‘heavy’ main pieces and inexpensive art and accents with a few ‘typical’ Indian necessities such as mosquito nets is the heart of this style and provided you stay true to this you will not go wrong.