Every Sunday, we see the Antiques Roadshow appear on television like gilded Baroque clockwork. Settling down with a duvet and a cup of tea, I’m often hypnotised with the knick-knackery, but do occasionally nod off. Usually, grand estimates are revealed to an elderly woman with a Cartier necklace, or a Queen Anne table (or something of that ilk). She’s often stunned at the respective value of her goodies. At this point, I also begin to think about what’s in the attic upstairs and frown, because it’s just a bundle of suitcases with a plethora of clothes - perhaps some broken bits of technology bought over the years. Is any of it good enough for the Antiques Roadshow? I fear not.
The fact that I’m not going to find a masterpiece or heirloom does send me into a depressive lull for some time; but then I start to think about things more objectively. India wasn’t subject to the same artistic influences in furniture, jewellery and artistic design as in western Europe (Renaissance, Romanticism, Classicism, Modernism etc) - but it sill went through its own stages of artistic evolution. I just want to know where all of these things ended up? If not in the attics or basements of those living in NRI hot-spots, then where?
Evident collections of masterpieces exist at museums in London, New York, Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi (to name a few cities) though these are exceptional treasures. I’m more interested to know where the smaller items have landed. The personal and domestic items, belonging to private families and not necessarily the state. (Hoping, desperately, that the heat and dust of India hasn’t eaten its way through them.)
I begin this mini-quest by questioning my mother with whether we own any antiques (other than jewellery). She looks a little perplexed at the idea. I then do a mental audit of the house back in India and can’t think of a thing. I think about the goods available to purchase from stores in London (namely west London) and can’t think of anything that’s genuinely of historical significance. Of course I can buy a massive silver storage case, wedding paraphernalia and vast amounts of plastic kitsch - but the chances are all of this will have been made in the last few years or so. Acknowledging that Indians are known for their artisan qualities - I wonder where one goes to find the work that would have existed in former golden ages. Off the top of my head, I think about clothes from the Raj, relics from Gujurat, Kerala, Himalaya etc.
So, on working through my family history - I have thus far come across the following. A collection of hand woven rugs (made personally by my paternal grandmother) used primarily for bedding on old style beds (manjey). Black and white photographs of my grandfather in some sort of military regiment in Shang Hai, and very old letters in Urdu. Not a lot of this stuff has survived in prime condition, in fact I personally suggested bringing a lot of it over to England. I felt the heat and the sunlight would eventually begin to erode, what to me, were priceless objects. To this list, my mother proposed we add a Charka. We would have had one in the house originally about 2 years ago. Funnily enough, no one knows where it currently is. ‘We can get a new one’ they say, but surely that’s besides the point. Of course we can all replace the items we need, but the point of antiques is they embed the sentimental and cultural value of a particular time and moment. Without that artifact, we’re reliant on memory alone.
In the mass production of everyday objects, we’re decreasing the rarity, trade and skill associated with them. I couldn't value an iron bed made in a factory in the same way as a hand-made tabla, though I’d definitely appreciate its benefits. As society evolves, so will our attitude to these objects, and right now, the current global situation isn’t in our favour. However, it is in times like these that we can also begin to see value in our assets. Like one would value gold when currency is fluctuating, why not extend a similar appreciation to a Singh Sobha or MF Husian original (if you’re lucky enough to have one).
A bigger question at work is why we don’t have a value system in place that locks into the preservation of local goods, as well as national ones. A National Trust of sorts. Of course a glass encased cabinet in London will do well to look after Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s chair at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but what will happen to the local goods? Is the same care and attention being paid to goods in the villages and towns across India? Understandably everyone is faced with a differing set of priorities, so for the moment, I’ll acknowledge that it may be sometime before I see any thing of personal interest on next Sunday night’s show.