The stunning Burma teak closet hides its secrets marvellously well. It looks polished and fresh on the market, ready to be packed off and sent to a home with great taste. But when 30-year-old shopkeeper Harwinder Singh first bought it at a government auction a year ago, he suspected the charming wooden panels may have seen more than they let on. “The previous owners had lined the cupboard with newspaper. It’s only when we took it out did we realize how old the closet may actually have been. The paper dated back to 1954,” says Singh. He supposes the closet may be even older than that. The following week, Singh sold the newspaper to a foreign customer for Rs 3,000.
There are many such gems of the old world at Amar Colony’s furniture market. Started in 1965 as an all-purpose bazaar for vegetables and snacks, it’s not clear how the market became a curation of furniture pieces from different periods in time. Be it the ‘50s Burma teak closet, a 70-year-old Rajasthani four-poster bed, Bombay art deco style sofas or vintage telephone sets – the market does not disappoint. Several film sets have been created entirely out of furniture rented from the bazaar.
The shops are bathed in a cool hue of blue thanks to the tarpaulin sheets lined under makeshift asbestos roofs. There are no closed doors or fancy showrooms, only humble passageways with furniture and curios stacked up precariously on either side. On slow summer afternoons, one can see the owners and workers parked in front of desert coolers, sipping chai or Rooh Afza.
A Departure from the Old
In the last few years, the shopkeepers have also taken to making knock-offs of antique pieces that arrive at their shops from the government or embassy auctions and old kothis (bungalows). “These styles are so old and one-of-a-kind, if we sell the last piece, we have nothing to hold on to. So we make replicas now, to keep the styles alive,” says Sandeep Arora, 45, who runs the shop his father started three decades ago. He enjoys when entirely unique styles emerge out of modifications made to vintage pieces on the customer’s request.
Singh too dabbles in a bit of carpentry on his own. “We go through designs online and in magazines to see if we can make some of them here,” he says, standing next to a teal green-coloured shoe rack he has just finished building. It’s priced at Rs 7,000, but subject to bargaining, of course.
Most shops have also struck deals with bigger showrooms in Jodhpur and parts of Rajasthan which sell furniture on a made-to-order basis. A catalogue arrives every month for the shopkeepers to select from.
Tari Singh, 65, however, doesn’t believe in making replicas. His shop is one of the only surviving ones that deals solely in antiques. Dressed in a crisp white kurta and a powder blue turban, Singh enthusiastically sets up the 1930s His Master’s Voice (HMV) gramophone from Calcutta and beams as Lata Mangeshkar’s Aa Ja Re Mere Pyaar Ke Raahi, from the 1965 classic Oonche Log begins to play.
There have been times when even Singh has not realized the value of the items in his shop. He describes an incident when two customers nearly got into a brawl over a painting he had arbitrarily priced at Rs 4,000. The fierce cross-bidding went as high up as Rs 80,000 before a befuddled Singh finally asked the two what was so special about the painting. “Koi Husain ya kissi ki painting thi (it was some Husain’s painting),” he says casually as he recounts the episode. There’s no way of knowing if the painting really was an original MF Husain but at Singh’s shop, where time and geography intersect so curiously, anything seems possible.
As he engages in friendly banter with customers, his son and other workers expertly navigate the slender passageways of the shop, preparing a 90-year-old wooden door from a haveli in UP, for delivery. A family in Dehradun has purchased it for Rs 25,000. “Nowadays, people say they’re using sheesham or Indian rosewood, but they’re actually using Mango wood. You don’t get this quality of wood anymore,” Singh says, pointing to the finishing on the majestic door. He suspects even the brass knobs and door handles were hand-cut by karigars.
Refreshments and Requirements
As one spends practically the entire day sifting through the market’s treasures, some refreshments are in order. Tucked in an alcove among the vintage furniture and their replicas, a humble eatery serves not only tea but also a sumptuous breakfast and lunch. “Only Rs 40 for a taste of home,” says the ever-smiling Sneh, 49, who runs the shop for her father-in-law.
The chai stall is the perfect vantage point for what goes on in the market. The narrow corridors of the shops open out into an MCD park in front, which doubles up as a workshop and godown for some of the shopkeepers. Many old pieces of furniture that don’t seem salvageable are stripped and recycled for wood.
The market is mostly bustling with customers bargaining and carpenters working on fixing old furniture or building new ones. The smell of varnish is thick in the air. The park cum warehouse and even the shops themselves are akin to mounds of furniture, seemingly in disarray but working through a perfectly organized chaos.
“Bahaar se dekho toh kabaad khana lagta hai, par sabse alag khazane bhare hai yaha (if you glance from outside, it looks like a garbage dump but it offers the most unexpected treasures),” Singh rightly says.
In many ways, the market is like the Room of Requirement from the Harry Potter series. Hidden from plain sight, collecting fragments of life people have discarded, but what you have been looking for has been sitting among the mountain of sheesham, teak and mango wood for nearly half a century.
Photographs by Kirti Narain for Homegrown.
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