Old wood in new avatars  

furniture, Delhi, antique

Delhi’s oldest trader in antique furniture, some of it repurposed, employs technology to entice customers

Delhi has something for everyone. A good example is the Amar Colony furniture market, one of the most unique places for any city in the world. The market has some two dozen shops which sell antiques — actually newly-made old-looking furniture.

Antiques have their own charm. They never lose their appeal, as some of us will always need to delve into the past to make sense of the present in this fast-paced metropolis. Not to forget, wood, akin to wine, gets better with age.

Tari Singh, 65, is the owner of the oldest furniture shop—more than 50 years old—in Amar Colony. The third generation joined the business when his only son, Harprit Singh, 35, decided to pursue the family vocation. He also has big plans to expand operations to cover antique artefacts.

After Partition in 1947, Tari’s family had settled in Kanpur. His grandmother’s brother was the only survivor in his entire family, trying to piece together his life in Delhi. Tari’s father, a teenager, came to live with his uncle in Jangpura and adopted the city of Delhi as his own.

As the country was being rebuilt on the ashes of the prolonged colonial rule, Delhi had seen a lot of churning—old was giving way to the new. This included Victorian furniture. Tari’s father saw this as an opportunity and would restore old British Raj furniture to sell at a premium. “There was so much of furniture to deal with,” remembers Tari.

Harprit and subsequently Tari over a period of time created a warehouse or two where he’d store old wood—like the prized Burma teak—and later use it to make furniture. Tari’s father had eight carpenters working for him and at that time his was the only furniture shop in Amar Colony surrounded by a car garage, a cycle repair shop, general and vegetable merchants, and a dhaba.

Tari grew up in this atmosphere to become a self-taught expert in woodcraft. He is particularly fascinated by the Art Deco movement characterised by stylised forms, strong symmetry, geometric patterns, sharp edges, decorative details—started in France in the 1920s and adopted by the British. It flourished all over the world in the 1930s, but tapered off during World War II. Tari, as a young man, collected many books on furniture design and started making his own furniture using the old wood stored, inspired by the Art Deco movement.

He talks about ‘brother desk’ that he used to sell a few years ago for merely Rs 5,000, now it fetches more than Rs 25,000. The thing with wooden furniture is that its price never depreciates. To the contrary, if one can find the right buyers, the price appreciates with time if it is restored properly. There are many occasions when Tari rebuys the furniture at twice the price he had sold a few years ago.​

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It seems that objects like furniture that invariably outlive their owners have a destiny of their own. Many of the furniture pieces sold by Tari were auctioned out from government offices, the Parliament, the Supreme Court, embassies, and such important places which have been witness to the making and unmaking of history. Though aged, “They are strong, sturdy and well designed, very comfortable, are a work of art,” stresses Tari.

A godfearing man, Tari, is a member of Neeldhari group within the Namdhari sect of Sikhism—they wear white clothes with a blue turban. Religion, compassion, and business go hand in hand for him. Therefore, he’s nurtured long-term relationships with his staff and customers, alike. He has many loyal customers who share his passion for furniture design. And his carpenters, mostly from Bihar and UP, have been working for him for decades. Ram Sagar and Imanuddin have been with him for more than 30 years, are very trustworthy, and are treated like family members.

“The idea is to teach them a skill,” says Tari referring to young men who came to work for him. “Hath ka karigar bhukha nahin marta (a skilled hand always finds a livelihood),” he explains. Even during the pandemic, Tari has been supporting his carpenters though some of them have gone back to their village.

As people live in constrained spaces, Tari also buys old furniture of his customers to help make space for the newly acquired old furniture. This practice is extended to his own house. He keeps changing furniture as his daughter-in-law is also very fond of it and open to change every few years—most recently they replaced a sofa set.

Despite sales having plummeted due to the pandemic, Tari, and his son—who’s proficient with technology—are inviting old customers for a visit, or depending on their choices, sending them the pictures of the furniture. “It’s all about engaging people who love furniture not just for its utility but also for its aesthetic value,” explains Tari. And the response has been overwhelming.

One of his favoured clients is Ritwick Dutta, a famed environmental lawyer. It makes perfect ecological sense to reuse wooden furniture and prevent the denudation of forests. He also sends furniture to places outside Delhi—was mentioning an old customer who’s sourcing all the furniture for his newly built farmhouse.

He also rents out furniture for movies and serials trying to recreate the British era or for historical or period dramas. And there are people who arefairly fixated with their choices and antiques make a bold statement about their general world view. Nothing haunts such connoisseurs like antiques they didn’t buy.

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