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Is there an Indian style?

`If you can't hide it, flaunt it' is Priscilla Kohutek's advice, an approach to Indian style that will greatly appeal to the Indian mind. While her book is certainly a guide to interior decoration, with its design philosophy appearing to consist of `piling on the layers', GEETA DOCTOR looks at whether it `goes over the glass top'.

Candles galore... an example of a highly personalised room with accessories from all over Asia.

WHEN it comes to interior decoration, Indian style is a bird of many different feathers. To the Western mind Indian style is the regal peacock, flaunting its glittering tail of shimmering colours against the pale white filigree of marble screens in the moonlight with the splash of fountains in the background and the dark slither of desire under the silken sheets. In short it's a hopelessly romantic view that combines a type of visual Bhowani Junction experience, exotic India tamed through the civilising influence of the West "Pale Hands I held beneath the Shalimar ... "

At its best you look out for it in the early Merchant-Ivory films that are set in the decaying palaces and zenanas of the past while gorgeously clad actors recline on richly woven bolsters and stare heavily into space wondering why Shabana Azmi is taking so long to turn up with her Lucknowi paan, served on a silver platter, naturally. It has now metamorphosed into the regally appointed suites of heritage hotels that are either modelled to look like palaces, or into the palaces that have been trimmed to serve memories of the past into bite-sized pieces. Since the majority of romantic movies are set in these very same hotels, it's only to be expected that to most people this is the very pinnacle of Indian Style, a fantasy of a fantastical era. To the majority of Indians, looking for an Indian style is to behave like the Koel or Indian Cuckoo. They not only imitate every passing style and fashion that they might have picked up on their travels to different countries, like the Koel, they eventually appropriate another bird's nest and decide that it's their own.

Conversation piece... an old sewing machine base topped with granite, marble or glass.

At one time, the favourite design statement in most people's drawing rooms was the Glass Cabinet. In this was arranged all the souvenirs and artefacts picked up on what was in those days a rare and privileged treat, the "foreign trip" along with mechanical toys, menu cards, testimonials to excellent relationships forged with people from Byelorussia or Buenos Aires and Grandmother's false teeth. Standing at the very top of this collection of mementoes, was the Japanese Doll, usually the one with a cascade of Red Umbrellas, known as the Japanese Umbrella Doll, or the Pink one known as the Cherry Blossom Doll. She would always be encased in her own glass casket, to keep out the dust. Because of this, she managed to survive long after the plastic fighter planes and plaster Air India Maharajas had called it a day. To this day, in certain homes, you can make out the ghostly figure of the Japanese Doll, no longer occupying pride of place, but still taking a stand in some corner of the owner's bedroom cabinet.

This is why it's also convenient to think of Indian Style of being like a Magpie that treasures all manner of bright and shiny terms. If in the old days, the Maharajas insisted on acquiring the latest models of cars, flying machines and shooting equipment that are now the staple of so many Museums around the country, particularly in those parts where shooting and hunting were the only means of keeping the Royal Highnesses occupied, the collectors of today, pride themselves on their displays of Cartier, Crystals and China from the most desirable designers of the world. It's the same instinct, no doubt that leads the more plebian designer of an auto-rickshaw to plaster every inch of his chariot with shiny plastic upholstery, pictures of the gods, strips of reflecting silver paper and the most cherished of all these days, dangling discs of glittering CD-Roms.

Together, these mismatched ceramic elephants make a coffee table.

It's for this reason that Priscilla Kohutek's approach to Indian Style will appeal greatly to the Indian mind. For, even if one can only surmise, that she is from the North American school of Interior Design, which is much more relaxed when it comes to furnishing the home, as compared to the British or the Europeans, her motto will ring a bell in her Indian readers. "If you can't hide it, flaunt it!" she advises. She speaks with passion about indulging a taste for "Decadent Luxury" and every once in a while she recklessly spurs her readers on to throw in `gobs of greenery' or lace, or wild colour combos, yards of completely self indulgent brocade at the windows, or "puddles of curtain material" hanging from the ceiling and un-spooling on the floor. She is also very much into scented candles being lit from every nook and corner of the bath and bedroom and scattering the place with bowls of pot pourrie and draping chairs with swathes of silk saris, or dupattas.

Some time ago, there was not a single American Interior Decoration magazine that did not speak of the virtues of "Afghans" that were meant to be thrown casually across chairs and sofas to brighten up a dull corner. With Hamid Karzai's brilliant example in mind, one could only visualise hefty Afghan men being asked to lie down in fetching poses in the dull corners of American living rooms, but an "Afghan" signifies a type of a rug. It's the equivalent of calling a Kancheepuram saree a "Tamil" and advising you to throw a "Tamil" across your dining table, on festive occasions.

Another favourite piece of decorating savvy that Americans propagated in that era was to cry out for the use of "banquettes". A banquette we are told is a built in upholstered bench that creeps nearly under tables and becomes a superior bench. It can also be used under windows, which would always be curved and the clever decorator would then use little drawings to show you how to co-ordinate the fabric on the banquette, with the quaint café curtains that were suspended from a curving brass rod around the window niche.

A terracotta horse planter works with a variety of furniture styles.

Kohoutek seems to have ignored the banquette. Perhaps they went out of fashion along with craze for the Indian divan, that ubiquitous piece of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) furnishing that Indian housewives, who were forever on the move, created out of sturdy crates and packing boxes, draped with colourful fabrics. But she's hot on curtains.

Indeed if there was one item that is really worth studying in her guide on home decorating, it is her lavish, and extremely creative, comments on how to add drama to a room by the use of curtains, Venetian blinds, Roman blinds, ruched and balloon blinds and yes, even café curtains. Not only does she draw attention to the ways in which her best friends have used them in the photographs that she has very judiciously selected, just a few choice homes to drive home her point, but there's a whole section of small water colours on window draping. She even recommends masses of curtains for bathrooms. Looking at her illustration of favourite bathrooms, powder rooms and toilets crammed with plants, posters and stencil paintings on the walls, when the floors and shelves are not yet filled with seashell motifs, one is reminded of the famous occasion when Peter Sellers doing his innocent Indian abroad act, staggers into a Western toilet and desperately looks around for the loo. He searches all over the place, there is even a parrot in a cage in this particular bathroom which he greets with the immortal words, "Birdy! Num Num". He has to fight masses of accessories that have been designed to hide the fact that the room serves such a humble function before he can finally unburden himself with a look of pure Peter Sellerian bliss.

Kohutek's design philosophy also appears to consist of piling on the layers. If there are no layers at the window and corner tables, she has them on the bed and if all else fails she brings out her magic weapon. In Kohutek's dictionary of decoration, the glass brick wall is the equivalent of the old banquette. It's used as her ultimate design trick to create partitions, to screen a kitchen or bathroom area or just to fulfil an urge for drama.

Accented entry... in this flat it's regional d‚cor.

Equally, it's her sense of the dramatic that drives her into suggesting the use of candles all over the place, or of creating a special "mood", for a room. In fact her advice is always very simple and down to earth and it's perhaps in her desire to impart her interior decoration "secrets" that the book is most successful. For she has divided the different segments of house planning, not just room by room, but by sub-sections that tell you how to concentrate on getting the floor, or wall treatment, lighting or curtain, just right. She organises her general theories very clearly and succinctly.

It gets a little tedious when she fills up the rest of the chapter with question and answer paragraphs, since obviously these get a bit repetitive as she goes along, a Miss Manners of the carved mahogany master bed and ensuite bathroom set. It makes one realise that there's a fundamental difference in the way that Westerners look at design, from the way that Indians might. In a cold climate there is a tendency to look inwards, to keep the outside out by creating layers of materials. In hot climates, in an ideal situation, the need is to let the air flow through the rooms that for the most part are kept un-cluttered, the famous Spartan ethos of home decoration that reached its aesthetic height in an era when less was more. To some this simplicity would be the essence of an Indian style. It also awakens various serious doubts about the packaging of the book. It's certainly a guide to Home Decorating. It will certainly serve as a practical guide to people who are confused about how to go about filling up a new home, but to call it "Indian Style" is going over the glass top. Except for a tendency to throw in a few Tamils, Tribals and Rajasthanis over tabletops and walls, or include durries and rugs on the floor, along with colourful accessories from different parts of South Asia, there is not much that can be said to constitute a distinct style that could be described as Indian. Maybe, that's the whole point — there is no such thing as an Indian style. As a Salman Rushdie would say as representatives of a Chutney culture, all we can expect today is a Chutney style. It's a style that Priscilla Kohutek serves with great relish. Enjoy it.

The Guide to Home Decorating - Indian Style, Priscilla Kohutek, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., p. 230, price not mentioned.

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