High on drama, low on decorum: Poonam Saxena looks back at the living room

Unless one never looks at social media, there is no way to avoid seeing images of designer living rooms and dining rooms. Such images (“we are Mediterranean / Moroccan / vibe”), I couldn’t help but think of a time when the ambitions of the public spaces of the home were significantly less grandiose.

The TV set, the focal point of any drawing room that had one, often sat proudly in its own wooden cabinet, or at least covered with a fine cloth, to protect it from dust.  (HT Archive) premium
The TV set, the focal point of any drawing room that had one, often sat proudly in its own wooden cabinet, or at least covered with a fine cloth, to protect it from dust. (HT Archive)

Visitors wouldn’t go into the bedroom, so that room didn’t matter much. The average bedroom consisted of a bed, perhaps a chest of drawers and a pair of wooden or iron almirahs. that was One of the bedrooms in our old house in Kanpur was called the “box room” because it was filled with suitcases where family members kept their clothes and linen. Built-in closets had not yet arrived and the available cupboards and chests of drawers were not enough for a large joint family.

The drawing room or sitting room, and the dining room, were seen by the guests. Those who grew up between the ’60s and ’80s will remember some of the distinctive features of these rooms. Once upon a time, the drawing room was an austere, formal space that no one used; It was opened only after important visitors entered. It turned into more of a living room, and I suspect it coincided with the advent of television in India.

Families needed to be able to get together to watch a Sunday movie or Chitrahar (shadow song in Mumbai) on Doordarshan. Visitors also want to watch TV; After all, the family needed to display their prized possessions, which were often kept in wooden cabinets with sliding doors, or at least covered with fine cloth, to protect them from dust.

Until the early 70s, only a few households in each residential colony had a TV set, so children and adults from neighboring houses would flock to their doorsteps. By the time the anticipated show began, a small crowd filled the living room, with round-eyed children sitting cross-legged on the floor in the first few rows.

But what I love most about the living room is the glass-fronted “showcase” that usually stands on one wall.

In her wonderful memoir, Kacha Umber, Sara Rai (who, incidentally, is Premchand’s granddaughter) recalls a display case in the dining room of her family’s Allahabad bungalow. Among the other knickknacks was a 24-piece bone-china dining set that was never used “because … one of the pieces might break and ruin the set”. “A pair of salt and pepper shakers the size of tiny sheaths—black with yellow beaks—sat on the top shelf, trapped behind glass, forever denied the chance to fly.”

While this display case contained only food and drink, many held a more eclectic mix. Fine crockery (brought out when special guests arrived) sat among a profusion of dolls: Russian stacking dolls (wildly popular for a time), bobble-head dancing dolls, Japanese dolls in kimonos, sometimes in their own little glass case. There may also be large conch shells, Far Eastern fans (mounted on the back of the case) and small models of the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Air India Maharaja.

These items reflect small, sweet wishes and aspirations, such as overseas travel. (Fine bone china was delicate and expensive, so it had to be carefully stored but also proudly displayed.)

Photographer Dayanita Singh, who has an uncanny eye for detail, calls them “cupboards of curiosities.” “Each family has a small museum of souvenirs or things they’ve picked up from their travels,” she tells me. “But it was not all for the outside world; It was also a way of preserving your memories, like a family album in objects.

She plans to install a display cabinet in her home and fill it with family items. “It would be a portrait of my parents for me,” she says.

I can’t wait to see it.

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